Why Are Progressives So Eager To Copy California's Failed Policies?

Californians might be voting with their feet, but there's nowhere they can run and hide if the federal government embraces the same policies.


During my recent trip to Phoenix, locals rolled their eyes at all the Californians who are moving there—mostly middle-class residents who are so tired of our state's chronic mismanagement that they're willing to abandon the temperate coast for a parched desert. Note to Californians: It's best to re-register your cars in other states as quickly as possible, to avoid glares from the locals.

But while the exodus continues—and California's falling population and outmigration figures reinforce the anecdotal stories—progressives still dream of replicating the state's political experiment at the national level. Californians might be voting with their feet, but there's nowhere they can run and hide if the federal government embraces the same policies.

After the Biden administration took power, many Americans expressed these concerns. After all, Vice President Kamala Harris, is a product of the Bay Area Democratic political machine. Biden tapped another former California attorney general and member of Congress, Xavier Becerra, to run the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services—a particularly important agency given the pandemic.

Other Californians rose to high-level positions, too. These include a team of economic officials with longtime California ties, including Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen (former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco), Small Business Administration head Isabel Casillas Guzman (a veteran of the Gray Davis and Gavin Newsom administrations), and a host of lesser-known officials.

And San Francisco's Nancy Pelosi remains the speaker of the house, where California-style policies (such as its ban on independent contracting) receive a sympathetic hearing. As we know, California's Democratic leaders seem more interested in using California—it's the world's fifth-largest economy, don't you know?—as a template for national policy.

Their recent fratricide over single-payer healthcare is one recent example. The Legislature proposed ending every private health plan and replacing it with a DMV-style bureaucracy called CalCare. Its companion measure, Assembly Constitutional Amendment 11, would have asked California voters to raise their taxes by $12,250 per household.

In reality, neither bill had any serious chance of becoming law. The effort was about making a symbolic point—largely for a national audience. But with Harris and Becerra in key national posts, progressives hoped such policies could be imposed from the top down.

Yet fears of the Californication of America are overblown after watching the administration's ongoing struggles. "White House officials have grown so frustrated with top health official Xavier Becerra as the pandemic rages on that they have openly mused about who might be better in the job," The Washington Post reported last month.

Biden officials are frustrated at conflicting messaging from Becerra's office, as the pandemic continues and the administration pays a political price for its mishandling of related health policy. By the way, a government agency that can't even get its "messaging "right on one single health issue might not be the best place to centralize all healthcare decisions, but I digress.

The administration jumped into damage-control mode, as Latino groups complained about criticism of Biden's highest-ranking Latino official. But no Californian should be surprised at Becerra's inability to inspire confidence in the federal response to the virus' latest variant, or anything else. He had virtually no healthcare experience, but that was only part of the problem.

More significantly, Becerra was a disaster as attorney general. After the U.S. Senate approved Becerra as the nation's healthcare czar, this Editorial Board recounted the "ongoing mess" he left at the California Department of Justice—comparing the imagery to "an action movie protagonist barely escaping from a building that he detonated behind him."

I lack the word count to detail the myriad Becerra scandals and management failures, but the courts repeatedly slammed him for disregarding the state's police-accountability laws and mismanaging our gun-registration system. The newspaper editorial found a recurring theme: "basic incompetence." Who is shocked that he took that skill set to the federal level?

Harris' office has likewise echoed explosion scenes from Die Hard 2. White House damage control over Becerra echoes its approach to Harris in December after news reports pointed to infighting, intrigue, and dysfunction. The White House reassured the nation that the vice president is a valuable partner, but it sounded like the administration was limiting Harris to tasks where she could do little damage.

Similar dysfunction plagued all of her previous offices, so why would we expect anything different as vice president? My theory: California's Democrats rise to power in a one-party state, where internal party considerations matter more than policy credentials or basic competence, so they are out of their league playing at the national level.

California Democrats don't understand that voters in Peoria or Phoenix don't share the same obsessions as those in San Francisco or Los Angeles. So while California's lawmakers will continue along their merry, progressive way, it's obvious—and fortunate— that they lack the skills to impose those priorities on a politically diverse nation.

This column was first published in The Orange County Register.