Running for President on his record in public office, Gov. Pete Wilson tried Sunday to deflect charges that his promises as a national candidate do not square with some of his key decisions as a mayor, senator and governor.
Wilson has long faced allegations of flip-flops at home, where his reputation as a political moderate has been shaded in recent years by conservative positions on welfare, taxes, abortion, illegal immigration and affirmative action.
Now that he is being treated as a major contender in the presidential race, he was forced Sunday to say that voters in New Hampshire’s presidential primary next February should not look at his record of raising taxes in California as an indication of what he would do in the White House.
“That’s right, because what we’ve got to do is cut spending,” Wilson said in a sometimes testy interview on NBC-TV’s “Meet the Press.” He said he would take the so-called New Hampshire pledge, promising not to support a tax increase as President.
When asked why his pledge should be trusted, given his onetime promise to Californians that he would not raise their taxes, the governor first denied that he ever made such a promise. Later, he admitted he told reporters in his 1990 gubernatorial campaign that he would oppose an income tax increase.
“And the next year, what happened to income taxes in California?” asked David S. Broder, political columnist for the Washington Post.
“The following year we suffered a loss of a third of our income,” Wilson explained. ". . . We had to fill this gap and balance the budget as we are required to in a single year by a tax increase.”
Wilson blamed the Democrat-controlled state Legislature for forcing him to accept the tax increase but then acknowledged under questioning that he helped persuade recalcitrant Republican lawmakers to support the idea.
Wilson’s presidential campaign got two of its wishes fulfilled Sunday: for the governor to be taken seriously as a White House contender and for his political record to be examined. His campaign officials have argued that one of the sharpest contrasts between Wilson and his rivals in Washington is that he is a governor with a record of action on the major issues.
But Wilson’s opponents have already made clear that they will also make the governor’s record a major issue.
Wilson addressed the downside of political inconsistency when he explained why he has broken the promise he made to California voters last year that he would not run for President.
“Unless they’re terribly cynical, if they look at that record, they will see that there is a great deal more consistency . . . than I think is true in most cases,” Wilson said. “It isn’t that people don’t change their minds. They certainly are entitled, even obliged, to do so if, in fact, they’re confronted with new evidence or even if they rethink something. But if you make a habit of it, then I think you’re entitled to be subject to question. I haven’t.”
Wilson acknowledged that he had changed his mind on affirmative action. Two weeks ago, Wilson’s campaign got its biggest burst of national attention when the governor persuaded the University of California Board of Regents to drop race as a factor in hiring, contracting and admissions.
Critics say Wilson’s action conflicts with his record as mayor of San Diego, where he strongly supported programs that required the city and its contractors to consider minority status in hiring. Opponents have also produced a number of bills with affirmative action clauses that Wilson signed into law without complaint.
“I have changed, and I think that most Americans have,” Wilson said. ". . . We adopted a system of [affirmative action] goals, but over a period of years, added to the goals were timetables, compliance officers. It became a de facto system not just of preferences but really of quotas.”
On abortion, Wilson was asked to justify his support for abortion rights with his opposition to public funding for poor women and federal employees to obtain the procedure.
Wilson replied that he favors a bill the Senate passed Saturday that bars federal employee health insurance plans from covering abortions except in cases of rape or incest. He also said he supports a House-passed bill allowing states to choose whether Medicaid funds should be available for abortion.
“It is the same stance I took through the years that I was in the Senate,” Wilson said. “I favor the right of reproductive choice . . . but I don’t think that the taxpayers should necessarily be the ones who are asked to pay for it.”
Wilson said poor women should seek abortion funding from private sources.
Last week, Wilson found himself on the opposite side of the debate about public funding for abortions when a group of Republicans in the Assembly threatened to vote down the state budget unless $40 million designated for abortion procedures for the poor was dropped.
Wilson explained Sunday that he opposed the abortion funding even though he refused to support its removal. Unlike the federal budget, Wilson said, the state budget must pay for abortions sought by the poor because it is mandated to do so by the state Constitution.
He said the action requested by the Assembly Republicans was illegal. “I am not a scofflaw.”