You’d think there would be at least one Republican pragmatist running for governor — a pragmatic conservative.
Some wannabe governor willing to spend big for a worthy cause, raise taxes if needed, protect the environment from exploiters chanting “economic growth,” be tolerant on social issues, even support amnesty for hard-working illegal immigrants.
Too bad such a gubernatorial candidate probably couldn’t be nominated by GOP voters in California.
But wait! One such candidate was: Ronald Reagan. Nominated and elected governor and president. The classic conservative icon.
True, Reagan ran for office as a conservative. “Government is not the solution. Government is the problem,” he insisted.
But once in office, he usually governed as a moderate, a pragmatist. And he was easily reelected.
Today, Reagan would be branded “just another liberal politician” by the likes of Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner.
As governor, Reagan was the biggest California spender of the last half century. Under him, state spending leaped 177%. And as president, he spent like the proverbial drunken sailor to expand the Navy and the nuclear missile arsenal while winning the Cold War. He left Washington with a then-record national debt.
His first year as governor, Reagan raised taxes equal to 30% of the state general fund, still a modern record. And as president, he increased taxes several times, although conservatives pretend to remember only the one big tax cut.
As governor, Reagan protected the spectacular John Muir Trail in the Sierra from highway builders and Central Valley business interests. He blocked dam building on the Eel and Feather rivers. He and Republican Gov. Paul Laxalt of Nevada set aside their aversion to centralized, intrusive government and created a bi-state agency to control growth at Lake Tahoe.
Reagan signed legislation creating the California Air Resources Board, leading to the nation’s first tailpipe emissions standards.
Now Republicans Whitman and Poizner advocate postponing implementation of a law to control greenhouse gas emissions.
Today, Reagan would be tagged by his party as an environmental extremist.
The list goes on.
As governor, Reagan signed the nation’s then most liberal abortion rights bill. (He later called it a mistake.) He opposed a ballot initiative that would have permitted the firing of teachers for being gay.
President Reagan signed a bill granting amnesty to illegal immigrants.
Poizner runs attack ads accusing Whitman of supporting amnesty. Whitman counters with ads vehemently denying it.
“When Ronald Reagan was elected president [in 1980] he was the foul pole in right field. Today he’d be in center field,” says former Republican legislative leader Jim Brulte, now a consultant and chairman of Poizner’s gubernatorial campaign.
“The Republican Party is much more conservative today. And the Democratic Party is more liberal.”
That’s because, Brulte points out, moderates have been abandoning both parties and becoming independents, or “decline to state.” Ideologues are left to dominate the parties.
When Reagan was first elected governor in 1966, independents amounted to only 3% of the electorate. By 1980 they had risen to roughly 8%. Now they account for 20%.
Meanwhile in that 44-year span, Republicans have dropped to 31% of the electorate from 40%, and Democrats have fallen to 44.5% from 57%.
Nonpartisan polls show how much Republicans have veered right and Democrats left.
The Public Policy Institute of California has found that over the last decade, Republicans have become less willing — and Democrats more willing — to fight global warming.
Dramatically more Republicans have become convinced that immigrants are a burden. Slightly fewer Democrats are.
Compared to 1992, the Field Poll reports, significantly more Republicans now call themselves “strongly” conservative. More Democrats consider themselves strongly liberal.
“Reagan would be hard pressed to get nominated today,” says biographer Lou Cannon, who has written several books about his governorship and presidency. “Today he would not be in the conservative mainstream. He just simply would not be.
“Reagan was practical. He had principles, but he wanted to succeed in office. That’s what is missing today in government. A lot of these birds, they don’t seem to care that much about whether the state does well.”
I called Stu Spencer, Reagan’s career-long political guru. Spencer thinks he still could be nominated in today’s climate of extremism.
“His personality would overcome a lot of these problems,” the semi-retired consultant says. “Personality and emotion are 70% of the game. And he had both. He had the ability to evoke emotion.”
They’re called leadership qualities — the ability to connect and inspire — and they seem lacking in today’s candidates.
And unlike Whitman, Reagan not only had been a consistent voter, he was politically active for years before running for governor. He had a fully developed set of philosophical beliefs and wasn’t likely to be positioned by polling or political pressure.
“Right-wing types,” Spencer says, “always just loved Reagan and overlooked all these things that he did. They still just won’t accept the fact that he raised taxes. They get all upset and don’t want to hear about it.”
Whitman and Poizner have signed no-tax pledges peddled by intimidating gadfly Grover Norquist, Washington-based founder of Americans for Tax Reform. Most Republican legislators, in fact, have felt compelled to sign the pledge against raising taxes.
How would Reagan have handled Norquist’s hawking of the pledge? “He’d have been pleasant but ignored him,” Spencer says. “He’d have said, ‘Who was that guy trying to get on the [campaign] bus.’ ”
So could Reagan be nominated today? Probably.
Could another Republican without Reagan’s communication skills but with his track record of pragmatism? Probably not.
And that’s unfortunate for the GOP and for California.