Last week John Fund wrote a straightforward column explaining why California ultramoderate Republican Richard Riordan’s gubernatorial candidacy was imploding. For his troubles Fund was trashed by Andrew Sullivan of all people, who based on next to no knowledge of the campaign proceeded to dismiss Fund as representative of the intolerant and conservative loser wing of the California GOP.
Now Fund is asking for trouble again. In a Wednesday column, he explained further why Riordan may not survive next Tuesday’s primary and why Bill Simon is poised to score an upset. So far Sullivan hasn’t snapped back. Maybe he’s now looked at Riordan’s sorry performance a bit more carefully.
It didn’t have to turn out this way. Well into this year Riordan appeared to be a logical choice as the GOP’s nominee in a state where the Republican Party has been losing badly. A White House-backed “restructuring” last year aimed to impose the Bush 2000 model on the party, the idea being that a more moderate image would broaden its appeal. There was some conservative resistance to the plan, but in the end most everyone went along. The need to win took priority.
Riordan seemed to be an ideal candidate to lead the California party out of the wilderness. A popular two-term mayor of Los Angeles, where he worked as easily with Democrats as with Republicans and enjoyed unusual (for a Republican) Hispanic support without which no Republican can win statewide, he was well-positioned to challenge incumbent Gray Davis, who never popular to begin with is strongly disliked by perhaps half the electorate.
Mindful of the GOP’s huge disadvantage in a state where only 35 percent of voters register as Republicans, as opposed to 45 percent as Democrats, some conservatives were even enthusiastic about Riordan’s candidacy. There was plenty to like. In Los Angeles he was a tough law and order mayor after the Rodney King riots. Earlier he had backed the drive to oust soft-on-crime state Supreme Court chief justice Rose Bird. He took on the teachers’ unions and was good on budget issue and opposing regulations. Even better, he wasn’t afraid to talk about God and was very much his own person. An original, in other words.
Inevitably, some even compared him to Ronald Reagan. One active Reaganite praised Riordan for showing tremendous character and courage. Like Reagan, he said, “Riordan comes across as someone who is in politics to serve the interests of other people and not himself.” His politics seemed based “upon a belief in the capacity of the American people as opposed its elites.”
But that was then. When hope springs eternal warning signs are ignored. Riordan had left many such signs, not only in the generous political giving he’d showered on many Democrats over the years but also in not infrequently cutting off Republicans who had backed him. He was a RINO — Republican in name only — well before the acronym became current. Nonetheless, it was easy to say that as L.A. mayor he had no choice but to reach out as widely as possible, but that as a statewide candidate he’d demonstrate more open Republican commitments.
It hasn’t happened. Since announcing for governor last fall, he’s run as the party’s presumed nominee, all but ignoring the obvious need to win the primary first — and thus violating a fundamental rule of politics: secure your party base. Instead, Riordan has seemed determined to do just the opposite: to demonstrate he has no use for the party he’s running to represent. If he’s spoken about the California GOP, it’s been to paint it as an out of touch, intolerant collection. When Bill Simon’s ads accuse Riordan of being “ashamed to be a Republican,” they’re offering what political ads aren’t supposed to offer: truth in advertising.
And typically when a politician of Riordan’s stripe hurls charges of intolerance, he winds up demonstrating his own variety of the sin. “He’s pro-life,” Riordan says of Simon, “but he will not respect people who are pro-choice,” as cheap a lie as any hurled this campaign, though at least it confirms the opposite of what it claims. What makes Riordan’s smallness even more pathetic is that it all comes down to a craven effort to win the support of pro-choice women, in an election cycle where abortion is hardly the main issue. Even sadder is to see an Irish-American Catholic like Riordan, with a long history of support for church causes and friendships with Catholic hierarchs, backing off his own personal belief that abortion is murder. It’s hard to admire a politician who has sold his soul.
Riordan comes across as weak for other reasons, not least because he is nearly 72 and looks every bit as old as he is. With typical class, Democratic operatives like Garry South have been attacking Riordan for years as old and lazy and undisciplined. Bob Mulholland, the state’s top Democratic bully, last year described Riordan as “a couple of years away from a nursing home.”
But age has figured in Republican thinking as well. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, one of sixteen California congressmen who endorsed Riordan’s candidacy last year, said in an interview last fall that “it’s pretty well understood” that Riordan is running for only one term. The “general opinion,” Rohrabacher added, is that he’s topping his career off and that he only has four years of service left in him. As if to confirm this thinking, other top Republicans were already discussing 2006 as an open seat and wondering whether someone like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Condoleezza Rice might make a good gubernatorial candidate.
A conservative in Riordan’s campaign insisted “there’s been no talk around here about a one-term candidacy,” and the issue hasn’t come up during the primary season. At this stage, Riordan’s capacity to serve more than one term is the least of his problems.