The drive to line up Republicans behind Arnold Schwarzenegger for governor bears all the elements that reduced the California Republican Party to a shambles by the end of the 1990s. Consider the message we have heard so far on the bedrock issue of taxes:
Yes we’re against taxes … but, you know, property taxes are too low — what? Did we say that? No, no, we love Prop. 13, don’t listen to that man behind the curtain If he says that again, he’ll have to do 500 sit-ups. No, I won’t sign any pledge not to increase taxes, though Californians are terribly over-taxed. It’s just that I can’t bring myself to say even that I won’t add to their burden, much less outline a plan for relieving it. There could be an emergency, like a flood or an invasion from Mars; but, trust me, I’ll clean house.
To my friends and colleagues who support Arnold Schwarzenegger or who believe his election, despite his shortcomings, would strengthen the Republican Party, I must say I disagree. Hardly more than a few weeks ago, we all expected Democrats to hold the governor’s office for three more years — so little did the prospect trouble Republicans that, had it not been for Darrell Issa’s generosity and foresight, the recall would have been left to fail for want of a cash investment relatively small considered against the vast resources routinely poured into California politics. But now, suddenly, October 7 is being discussed as though it were the last election we would ever see.
I do not minimize the critical issues at stake in the recall: on the contrary, it is precisely because they are so important that I urge Republicans to keep matters in context. A quick victory — even supposing such a thing is likely were Mr. Schwarzenegger alone in the GOP field, and I do not think it would be — but even supposing it were likely, I believe the probable cost would outweigh the gain for Republicans and for California. Supporting a candidate genuinely devoted to Republican principles is perhaps a more difficult course at the moment, but real political strength, like most other real strengths, is built slowly from solid foundations.
We’ve been through this before — eight years of it. Pete Wilson was going to create a powerful “New Republicanism” — but left the California GOP a wreck, characterized by dysfunctional or non-existent Party organizations, a famine in new candidates, a collapsed grass roots structure, wracked by internecine ideological warfare, unable to register voters, raise dollars, or articulate a message (with notable local exceptions here and there where the Wilson influence had not penetrated or had been overcome). It added up to a one-Party, Democrat state.
Wilson’s “New Republicanism” wasn’t new, and it wasn’t, as advertised, “fiscally conservative and socially moderate.” It was opportunism. The governor publicly excoriated and privately betrayed fiscal conservatism as quickly and vehemently as social conservatism when either crossed his vision for his own career. He also adopted conservative themes when that served his purpose. “One thing you can be sure of,” a longtime Sacramento activist told me after Wilson announced support of some already-popular initiative to eliminate race preferences or bilingual education or benefits for illegals or something, “it is already an almost certain winner. They never back anything until they’ve tested it every way possible to make sure it will help Pete.”
Democrats are in trouble and in revolt against Gray Davis for the same reason Republicans rebelled against Wilson. Both governors made it plain they themselves were their top priority, not issues, not base constituencies, not the people who sacrificed to make the Party win, and certainly not the state. People who give of themselves day after day to bring political victory over the long term don’t suffer selfish, duplicitous leaders happily.
What is the message of the Schwarzenegger campaign? Tough talk when a restive public demands it, but, from beyond the limelight, one keeps hearing such things as that “Arnold Schwarzenegger has tapped former Los Angeles Mayor Dick Riordan to create an ‘issues team’ made up of experts on California policy to help his campaign develop specific proposals …” (Fox News, August 9). Need we re-hash Mr. Riordan’s policy positions, the man Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters noticed differed from Gray Davis only on points where the Riordan silhouette protruded to Davis’s left? — the man whose checkbook helped bank-roll (in the six figure range) Democrat campaigns against even sitting Republican office holders like George Deukmejian?
In cold terms, the Schwarzenegger message is: elect me and you will have a governor with an “R” after his name. Beyond that, no guarantees, except, of course, that he jettisons the interests of at least two core GOP constituencies, pro-lifers and pro-gunners. That should please Democrats, especially those aware of the shellacking they took last year in the 80th Assembly District where a pro-life Republican defeated a pro-abort Democrat in a Democrat-gerrymandered, heavily Latino district. Mr. Schwarzenegger will not harvest the rich Reagan Democrat potential of Hispanic voters.
RETURN TO REPUBLICAN CIVIL WAR is inevitable under Mr. Schwarzenegger, just as the civil war was unavoidable under Wilson, a man who “wanted to win” as much as the Terminator does. A strong grass roots structure becomes an automatic brake on and embarrassment to a Party leader who opposes the grass roots’ political goals. When Governor Schwarzenegger, for instance, wants a tax hike, he’ll know Senator McClintock, among others, will rise in the Legislature, at Party gatherings, before reporters, and on talk radio to point out in detail how destructive to the economy and to GOP fortunes it will be. The governor will know that Mr. McClintock will be cheered by most ordinary Republicans, and by many other Californians, who will then think ill of the governor. So Governor Schwarzenegger, like Wilson before him, will counter-attack, adopting the usual clichés about rigid, right-wing ideologues stuck in the past, uncaring, unpopular, unable to lead, and the press will eat it up.
I have seen it — too much. The one way guaranteed to fill a news conference with reporters and generate lavish next day coverage was always to lambaste Pete Wilson. The “Republicans attack themselves again” story is always news. And it somehow magically pries opened the otherwise hermetically sealed (to conservatives) op-ed pages of the Los Angeles Times: slam the governor, or have the governor slam conservatives, and the page is yours.
In the mid-1990s, I organized a Capitol news conference with former U.S. Attorney General Ed Meese to criticize a decision authored by state Supreme Court Chief Justice Ron George. The room was packed, but despite our showing such noteworthy items as that former Democrat Senate Leader David Roberti agreed that George was misinterpreting a law Roberti had shepherded through the state Senate, all the reporters seemed interested in was the vexed question: wasn’t it all Pete Wilson’s fault for having put George on the Court? When it became apparent that neither Meese nor I were there to talk about Wilson, the room deflated. Next day saw a few stray wire stories in small papers, but the Bee, the Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the TV stations — all of whom had sent reporters — somehow couldn’t find any news to report from the conference.
The Schwarzenegger candidacy serves a variety of interests, some quite legitimate, others less so, but mainly it ignores the interests of the people of California.
It serves the national interests of the White House and east-coast Republicans who believe Mr. Schwarzenegger offers their best chance of reading “GOP Retakes California Governorship” in the Washington Post and New York Times October 8, with the implication of dismay and demoralization for national Democrats and national momentum for the president and his Party on the eve of his re-election campaign. But the details for those of us actually living in California under a liberal GOP administration fall outside those concerns.
It serves the interests of members of former Governor Wilson’s administration surviving in the political wilderness since Davis took office who believe Mr. Schwarzenegger represents their best chance of returning to the state Capitol. And it serves liberal Republicans who, as a minor faction within the state Party, require liberal Republican champions at the top to make them a force in state politics.
But it does not serve California’s people, and, by failing to do that, it ultimately guarantees failure for Republican political fortunes in California, certainly in the long run, if not right away. Successful politics in a democracy consists of a pact between political leaders and enough people to supply resources and votes sufficient to win elections. Wilsonian “New Republicanism” breaks the pact. Its return will smother the nascent Republican revival in Los Angeles, San Diego, and other counties, resurrecting the ideological wars and sending the creative, dedicated people capable of rebuilding the Party streaming again for the exits.
The Democrats speak and act for their special interest supporters — Davis forgot that, and he is about to be deposed as a result.
Republicans speak for those oppressed and abused by the Democrats’ special interests: unborn babies, taxpayers, pro-family activists, freedom loving patriots, business owners and their employees, home schoolers, religious believers, families, young people looking for economic opportunities, seniors looking for secure retirements, kids and parents in the Boy Scouts, anyone who likes to drive a car or own a home — in a phrase: ordinary Californians, the people. Pete Wilson forgot that, giving us our one-Party state. Reverting now to opportunism while forgetting about people will cost more than it will gain.
One candidate in this election speaks for the people. He is a Republican and well known, a proven vote-getter who offers a genuine alternative to the Democrats. As the antithesis of the Wilson idea, he will rebuild the Party for all the reasons Mr. Schwarzenegger threatens to tear it down. Tom McClintock will get my vote October 7.