Fifty Julys ago, up the road near San Francisco, in the unfortunately named Cow Palace, the Republican National Convention gave its presidential nomination to Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, who knew he would lose: Americans were not going to have a third president in 14 months. His agenda, however, was to change his party's national brand.
Today, in California where one in eight Americans live, and where Democratic presidential candidates can reap 55 electoral votes without spending a dime or a day campaigning, the Republicans' gubernatorial candidate has an agenda and spirit similar to Goldwater's. Neel Kashkari is Goldwater 2.0, defining conservatism half a century on.
He relishes "turning upside down" the parties' stereotypes. The Democratic candidate, 76-year-old Gov. Jerry Brown, is "the old white guy." Kashkari, the son of Indian immigrants, was born in 1973, the year before Brown was first elected governor. Brown is a child of the establishment — his father Pat, California's 32nd governor, was defeated in 1966 by Ronald Reagan. Jerry Brown, California's 34th and 39th governor, is a government lifer, having been secretary of state, attorney general and Oakland's mayor when not unsuccessfully seeking a U.S. Senate seat and the presidency (three times).
Kashkari prospered in the private sector, a place as foreign to Brown as Mongolia. Born in Ohio, Kashkari studied mechanical engineering at the University of Illinois, came to California to work in the aerospace industry, then earned an MBA from Wharton, joined Goldman Sachs, and landed a Washington job with a Goldman Sachs alumnus, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson.
Kashkari's primary opponent deplored Kashkari's role as administrator of the Troubled Asset Relief Program. This opponent, a factually challenged fire-breather, also said Kashkari supports Shariah law. That would be peculiar for a Hindu who calls himself "a libertarian socially" and lives in Southern California's culturally relaxed Laguna Beach.
Today, California is a one-party state: Democrats have 2-1 majorities in both legislative chambers, and 40 of 55 members of Congress. Republicans hold no statewide office and have only 28 percent of voters registered by party. All of which has something to do with these facts: California has the nation's highest income tax, sales tax and poverty rate, and the second-highest gasoline tax. Only four states have higher unemployment rates. Kashkari says California's "U-6 unemployment rate" — which includes unemployed people seeking full-time jobs, part-time workers who want full-time, and people too discouraged to seek jobs — is more than 16 percent.
Running against Brown requires discerning silver linings on black clouds. Kashkari says of polls showing Brown leading 52-32: Well, 100 percent of Californians know who Brown is, so 48 percent are looking for an alternative.
Kashkari promises to derail Brown's obsession — the $68 billion San Francisco-to-Los Angeles bullet train. Brown has been silent about the recent court decision striking down the tenure system that entrenches incompetent public school teachers. The public likes the decision; teachers unions loathe it. Brown, Kashkari says dryly, has "multiple owners."
"If I get Jerry on a debate stage," Kashkari says, "anything can happen."