The White House’s cynical decision last year to nudge Richard Riordan into the California gubernatorial race has created more problems than it solved. Riordan is emerging as the Jim Jeffords of the Pacific Coast — a stick of dynamite underneath the California Republican Party.
Big Tent strategists cast Riordan as the solution to the party’s collapse. But in reality he simply illustrates it — and seems determined to shatter what little unity is left in the party.
In San Jose this last weekend at the party’s convention, Riordan thought it wise to humiliate one of the aging icons of California Republicanism, George Deukmejian, after the former governor said he couldn’t vote for a Republican who has given millions of dollars to Democrats, including the Duke’s opponent Tom Bradley.
“George has a bad memory,” said Riordan at the debate with his opponents Bill Jones and Bill Simon. “The only thing he remembers are his grudges.”
The attempted witticism — which drew boos from the Republican audience — reveals that Riordan isn’t simply a poor Republican; he is a poor candidate, who takes perverse pleasure in sticking his finger in the eyes of traditional Republicans.
Riordan’s self-destructive streak, combined with a penchant for jaw-dropping gaffes, will make the inevitable Gray Davis-Riordan matchup amusing at some level for political writers, but it will do the Republican Party no good. Parties can recover from honorable defeats; but they don’t recover easily from ideological strokes.
Running a de facto Democrat on the Republican slate injects a poison of cynicism into the bloodstream of the party, paralyzing grass-roots enthusiasm. The Davis-Riordan race is an insulting left-versus-lefter proposition, with Davis even tacking to Riordan’s right on the death penalty. His most recent ad notes Riordan’s lack of “consistency” on the issue, citing a 1987 interview in which Riordan agreed with former California Chief Justice Rose Bird’s “opposition to the death penalty.”
“Catholic” Gray Davis also has “Catholic” Riordan playing defense on the issue of abortion. Riordan, attempting to shore up his pro-abortion bona fides, has been reduced to the usual Mario Cuomo-style incoherent babble: “I very strongly dislike abortion. But I just as strongly respect the right of a woman to make a choice with respect to her own body.”
It is no wonder that the Duke and other high-profile Republicans are planning to sit out the general election. Michael Schroeder, John Herrington, and John McGraw — three former chairmen of the California Republican Party, all allied to the Simon campaign — issued a statement last weekend saying they could not vote for Riordan even in the general election.
“Dick Riordan is no Republican,” they said. “Mr. Riordan has shown a genuine intolerance for Republican candidates and grass-roots leaders possessing other viewpoints and an unfortunate interest in his own political career over the interests of his ‘fellow’ Republicans. We believe these traits make Mr. Riordan particularly ill-suited to serve as the nominee for our party’s top position, as Mr. Riordan is likely to engage in a selective support strategy to enhance his own personal motives that will leave many Republican nominees at every level out in the cold.”
How ironic: The White House — and congressional California Republicans — justified their unprincipled courting of Riordan on the grounds that victory will save the party. Little did they realize that the price of victory may be the party itself.
George Neumayr is a frequent contributor to the California Political Review and a recent media fellow at the Hoover Institution.