Gov. Pete Wilson has bowed to reality and folded the tattered tents of his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. That is surely a great disappointment for the 62-year-old governor, a steely trooper who seldom loses. But it gives him an opportunity now to return to the task to which Californians elected him, to re-engage with state issues and fill the hopes and promises he articulated when first elected governor nearly five years ago.
Liberated from catering to the most conservative elements of his party and from raising campaign funds, and knowing that under term limits he cannot run again for governor, Wilson should be free to make his mark in the last three years of his tenure.
Californians clearly dismissed his presidential bid, which broke his campaign promise to finish his second term. A Times poll taken last month found that only 23% wanted him to run. Moreover, his presidential aspirations led him into policy changes and seeming contradictions on immigration, affirmation action, taxes, abortion and other issues that made him seem an opportunist to many. Only 35% in the poll thought Wilson was a man of deep convictions.
THE PROMISE OF 1991: Before plunging back into Sacramento, Wilson would do well to reread his 1991 inaugural address, in which he came across as a compassionate conservative. "Let's bring a new government wise enough to invest in children as well as infrastructure, determined to shift from the remedial to the preventive, from income maintenance to enrichment of individual potential," he had said.
To be sure, much has intervened since: crushing recession, budget crises, fires, floods, earthquakes, riots. The presidential bid was a needless added diversion that distorted Wilson's approach to state matters, shifting him rightward.
His leadership is badly needed today. The Legislature is in more disarray than usual, with a revolving door at the Assembly Speaker's office. Wilson's skills at conciliation could reduce the partisan bickering that paralyzes the Capitol.
The 36th governor's legacy will be enhanced if he supports recommendations by the California Constitutional Revision Commission to reorganize our outmoded government. And in education he would do well to get behind the imaginative experiments mounted by the state superintendent of public instruction, Delaine Eastin, to boost the dismal reading and math scores of schoolchildren.
MALAISE OF TWO COUNTIES: Wilson also returns to a state where two huge counties, Los Angeles and Orange, stand at the precipice of fiscal collapse. Quicker intervention by Wilson could have given Orange County a better handle on its bankruptcy plan and enhanced his status. Now he must monitor the recovery closely, should he have to appoint a trustee to oversee the county's finances next year. As for L.A. County, Wilson may have to reconsider his reluctance to call a special legislative session, for keeping the state's largest county solvent is in the best interest of California, whose own credit ratings are slipping.
No longer needing to push the hot buttons of crime, immigration and affirmative action, the governor can also return to some of the environmental, growth and water issues on which he is expert, and to the almost forgotten notion of preventive social programs.
He also has a duty to repair some of the damage left by his excessive ambition. However sincere, his ardent attacks on illegal immigration and affirmative action have been divisive, alienating Latinos, African Americans and many Asian Americans. He needs to repair those bridges.
In any case, welcome home, governor.