As Gov. Pete Wilson nears the point of no return in deciding to grab for the ultimate political prize--the American presidency--he might be nagged by the unhappy experience of the last sitting California governor to succumb to presidential lust. After all, look how Wilson got where he is now.
In fact, no California governor has come close to winning the White House while serving as chief executive in Sacramento.
The last to try was Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., who ran in both 1976 and 1980, got tagged as “Gov. Moonbeam” and fell far short of the Democratic nomination both times. The 1980 campaign was so inept that Brown got only 4% of the California primary vote.
Brown returned to Sacramento as a battered lame duck to sit out the final two years of his governorship. When Brown tried to revive his political career in 1982 by running for the U.S. Senate, he was zapped by California voters again.
The beneficiary of Brown’s tarnished image in 1982 was Republican Pete Wilson, then the mayor of San Diego. Wilson went on to win a second Senate race and then two campaigns for governor--the job he touted as the only one he ever really coveted.
Pete Wilson, of course, is not Jerry Brown, and the clues of the past point only dimly into the future. But the possible pitfalls of running for President as a sitting governor are surely being weighed by Wilson as he decides whether to run and, if he does, what type of campaign to wage.
In the end, winning the presidency would make everyone forget the risks. But for any result short of that, the damage to California’s governor could be huge.
The risks are not limited just to the possibility of losing. For starters, Wilson may anger many of the nearly 5 million Californians who voted to reelect him just 4 1/2 months ago. Recent opinion polls indicate that Californians are decidedly ambiguous about Wilson running for President so soon after pledging to serve a full second term, until January of 1999.
Wilson’s ambitious 1995 legislative program, outlined before he began talking about a possible presidential campaign, faces a fractured Legislature where the absence of continuous gubernatorial pressure could mean deadlock and inaction. Democrats in both the Senate and Assembly have the ability to hold Wilson’s state budget hostage if they believe they can win concessions. That it might embarrass a Republican governor running for President is unlikely to be a high-ranking concern.
Then there is the “Gray Davis problem.” Every time Wilson leaves California, he abdicates full executive powers to a Democrat, Lt. Gov. Gray Davis. Although Davis has indicated that he will be a cooperative stand-in during any Wilson absence--and already has been--there is always the potential for political mischief or unexpected crisis. California, after all, has been home to the nation’s most spectacular disasters for some years now.
The unwritten understanding, said Davis chief of staff Garry South, “is that (Davis) does not intend to embark on any kind of behavior that would seek to embarrass Pete Wilson or put him in some kind of box while out of state.”
“At the same time,” South added, “as acting governor, if there are reasons to act, he will act.”
Brown faced the problem of a lieutenant governor of the opposition party when he ran for President, and for a time was bedeviled by Republican Lt. Gov. Mike Curb.
“It was a pain,” recalled Tom Quinn, who was Brown’s campaign manager. “There were some times when Curb flexed his muscles and created problems.”
Eventually, the governor’s office and Curb settled into “a working relationship and it was no longer a problem,” Quinn said.
For now, Wilson is on a political high, and on the verge of creating an exploratory presidential campaign committee, aides said this week. The mere speculation about a Wilson candidacy has enhanced his political stature. But if he ran and lost, Wilson’s prestige could wither, rendering him politically impotent in the final two years of his term. It would be even worse if he was seen to have bungled the campaign--by failing to carry California over President Clinton, for example.
Davis, as gubernatorial chief of staff while Brown was seeking the presidency, has sometimes-painful personal experience with the political clout problem.
“When your stock goes up in an early presidential primary, it goes up in California, politically and substantially,” Davis said in an interview. “But the reverse is true. If you come back beaten, battered and bruised, you’ll find it tough going at home.”
Michael Dukakis learned that lesson after losing his presidential bid in 1988 after a campaign that was based largely on his reputation as the governor who presided over the “Massachusetts Miracle” of economic revival.
Dukakis boasted of balancing nine budgets as governor of Massachusetts, but the miracle fizzled as he toured the nation in search of votes. The economy soured. Deficits piled up in the Boston Statehouse. Dukakis was forced to raise taxes by $700 million. Not only did he lose the national election to George Bush, Dukakis was finished at home. He announced in early 1989 that he would not seek another term as governor the following year.
The dilemma of trying to manage a big state while running a full-time national campaign was cited by former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo. Cuomo seemed to be on the brink of a White House campaign in 1992, but said he would not run unless he could get his fiscal program through the Republican-dominated state Senate. The Senate did not approve the package. Cuomo did not run.
California has sent two Presidents to the White House--Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972 and Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984--but neither was elected directly from the governorship.
Nixon was a senator from California and vice president, but never the state’s chief executive. In fact, Nixon won the presidency only after losing the governorship, to Edmund G. (Pat) Brown Sr. in 1962. During that campaign, Nixon foes claimed, with some effect, that he only wanted the governorship as a platform for his next presidential campaign.
As governor, Reagan fielded an abortive eleventh-hour bid for the nomination at the 1968 Republican National Convention. The limited effort did not keep him away from the governor’s office for any extended period, but did crimp his influence in Sacramento. He pondered running in 1972, but did not.
Defying the conventional wisdom of the time, Reagan left office before running an all-out campaign against President Gerald Ford in 1976. Reagan narrowly lost the nomination to Ford, whose supporters included San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson. Still a private citizen in 1980, but a prolific writer and political commentator, Reagan ran for President again, and won.
The conventional wisdom was rewritten. Now, the experts said, it took a state politician so long to win national recognition and to develop an effective presidential campaign, that being a sitting governor was no longer a political advantage. It was regarded as better to be out of office.
In fact, Clinton is the first sitting governor to win the presidency since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932.
U.S. senators enjoyed an edge beginning with John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign, in part because the Senate gave them a national platform and an expertise in foreign policy and national security. These were always big gaps in the presidential resumes of governors who were concerned with more mundane issues such as schools, welfare and highway construction.
With the Cold War over, the pendulum may have swung back to domestic issues.
“1996 is probably going to be a year of governors because there is so much strength in the governors’ chairs, especially in the outside party,” observed Thad L. Beyle, a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina and a student of state executives.
“Governors of big states have the ability to campaign for President on the cheap,” Beyle said. “All Wilson has to do is win California. If he wins that (the California Republican primary), he’s a player.”
A player, perhaps, but not necessarily the winner.
Pollster Mervin Field speculates that the best course for Wilson might be to run a modified favorite son campaign rather than a wire-to-wire marathon that would keep him away from California for long stretches.
Although a charismatic candidate might be able to start late and sweep the early primaries, that is not Wilson’s strength, he said.
“He’s the dogged Marine plugging along,” Field said. “What a dogged Marine does is plan every invasion. Everybody’s role is decided and prescribed--or proscribed. . . . His biggest challenge is to make sure there’s no formidable challenge to him in California.”
This strategy also would mute criticism that Wilson was leaving the state too often, and for too long, in the hands of Gray Davis, who routinely is vilified by California GOP conservatives as the arch-symbol of the liberal tax-and-spend enemy.
State Senate Republican Leader Ken Maddy of Fresno is among those who have expressed qualms about Wilson seeking the White House.
“If he’s gone most of this year, what happens to our legislative agenda and our efforts to elect majorities in both houses of the Legislature?” Maddy asked.