It can’t be easy to be a conservative in Gray Davis’s California. One would think that the recall election, which offers the prospect of ejecting that widely disliked liberal technocrat from office, would have improved the situation. Instead California conservatives have a new dilemma: Whether to vote for Arnold Schwarzenegger or Tom McClintock.
Schwarzenegger has money, a good organization and the high name recognition that comes with celebrity. What he doesn’t have, even after Bill Simon’s departure from the race, is a field clear of other candidates splitting the Republican vote. The 12 percent McClintock was drawing in a recent Los Angeles Times poll would come in handy for Schwarzenegger in closing the gap with Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante. McClintock, by contrast, has strong conservative principles (and a state legislative voting record to prove it) and is an expert on the state budget willing to contemplate daring reforms. He is thus uniquely qualified to deal with the issue that got the recall campaign going in the first place, but the conventional wisdom is that he can only prevent a Schwarzenegger victory, not win himself. It was expected that the allure of pragmatism for victory-starved conservatives would grow as the campaign progressed, drawing them into the Terminator’s camp.
Yet the way the campaign has played out thus far appears only to have increased many conservatives’ consternation. Peter Robinson, author of How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life, described the situation well in an entry in NRO‘s The Corner: “For the past couple of weeks now, I’ve kept expecting the question to resolve itself — all it would have taken would have been one or two really impressive statements from Arnold or one or two really foolish remarks by McClintock. But Der Arnold’s campaigning has proven almost aggressively insipid, McClintock’s simply brilliant.”
Case in point was last Wednesday’s candidate debate. Schwarzenegger skipped it while McClintock attended and, according to a plurality of respondents to one poll, won. The same poll found that 55 percent of voters disapproved of Schwarzenegger’s decision not to participate. So conservatives continue to wonder how they should vote.
Allow me to muddy the waters further. I’m a conservative Republican from Massachusetts, a red voter living in a quintessentially blue state. I long ago reconciled myself to the fact that a candidate who agrees with me 100 percent of the time, if such a specimen can even be found in this liberal habitat, is likely to have serious electability problems. I’m not opposed to voting for moderate to liberal Republicans when necessary. But I’m also mindful of the problems such Republicans can cause — liberal Republicans can get away with things liberal Democrats often can’t and their successes can drag the entire party to the left with them. The key is whether they pass what I call the “Giuliani test.”
Rudy Giuliani would have flunked almost any conservative litmus test when he first ran for mayor of New York City. He was for gay rights, gun control and abortion on demand, refusing even to support a partial-birth abortion ban to placate the Conservative Party while contemplating a run against Hillary Clinton for the U.S. Senate in 2000. But he was conservative on the core issue of crime and in office helped restore law and order to the “ungovernable city.” In fact, on issues ranging from taxes to welfare to the city budget, he ended up being as conservative as was viable in an overwhelmingly Democratic city.
Thus, the Giuliani test doesn’t evaluate candidates based on how conservative they are overall, but whether their election would result in a shift to the right in an area where they could actually make a difference. A Massachusetts example of a candidate who would have passed the Giuliani test was Bill Weld in 1990. Weld was ostentatiously liberal on social issues and lost the Republican State Convention endorsement to pro-life state House GOP leader Steve Pierce. But he was also a hard-line economic conservative, willing to press for tax cuts, budgetary discipline and privatization. After Weld beat Pierce in a surprise upset in the primary, despite my initial misgivings this much was clear: No matter who was elected governor, we were still going to have abortion on demand in Massachusetts. But if the Democrats won — even a relatively sensible Democrat like Weld’s opponent John Silber — taxes were likely to go up, whereas under a Republican governor there was at least the possibility they’d go down. So Bill Weld it was.
During Weld’s first term, he was able to shift the political debate on Beacon Hill from which taxes to raise to which budget items to cut. The state’s business climate and bond ratings improved as taxes were cut and the budget was balanced. He wasn’t Ronald Reagan, but rightward progress was made.
Of course, the Giuliani test doesn’t give liberal Republicans a free pass indefinitely. In my judgment, Weld no longer passed it by the time he ran for the U.S. Senate against John Kerry in 1996. He had gotten looser on spending, was increasingly pestering the national party about abortion and even criticized Kerry’s vote to confirm Clarence Thomas. I voted for a conservative third-party candidate instead, although it didn’t affect the outcome of the race. There are scenarios where Giuliani might not pass himself, such as a presidential run. A Republican who will do more to move the GOP to the left than move the jurisdiction they are running in to the right fails my Giuliani test.
Essentially, John J. Miller’s National Review cover story calling Arlen Specter the “worst Republican senator” is an application of the Giuliani test. He acknowledges that Lincoln Chafee actually has a more liberal voting record. But Specter is deemed the worst because he is the most influential liberal Republican senator, and thus the most effective at diluting the Senate GOP conference’s conservatism.
Does Schwarzenegger pass? It’s hard to say. He has come out for a state spending cap, against revisiting Proposition 13 and against partial-birth abortion, gay marriage and issuing drivers’ licenses to illegal immigrants. But he also has left the door open to tax increases in an emergency, exempted education-related largesse from spending cuts and could become the darling of those who believe the GOP should jettison social conservatism if elected. Most recently, he has even decided to choose a continuation of identity politics over color-blindness by opposing Ward Connerly’s Racial Privacy Initiative.
Barring some clear, unequivocally conservative stand on an issue of central importance to Californians before the campaign comes to a close, Schwarzenegger does not appear to pass the Giuliani test. If he fails that, then conservatives lose even if he wins.