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The Governor on the National Stage : An Analysis of George Deukmejian's Standing in the National Political Arena and His Potential to Become a Major Player

July 03, 1988|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | Ronald Brownstein, a contributing editor of this magazine, is the West Coast correspondent and former White House correspondent for the National Journal. He is writing a book about the relationship between Hollywood and politics.

FOR SIX YEARS, Gov. George Deukmejian has successfully run a state bigger than most nations. But to the po litical elite of his own country, he couldn't be much less visible than if he were the mayor of California's insular state capital.

Interviews with more than two dozen Republican political consultants, Reagan Administration officials, California congressmen, and independent national policy analysts found that Deukmejian, for the governor of the nation's largest state, has a remarkably low profile in national political circles--even as his name appears on lists of potential running mates for George Bush. The Iron Duke to his supporters, Deukmejian is virtually the Invisible Duke in national political terms. At best, with Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis poised to accept the Democratic presidential nomination in Atlanta this month, Deukmejian has acquired an identity as the Other Duke.

"There are people I've run into in the higher reaches of the federal government who don't even know who the governor of California is," says Martin Anderson, former chief domestic policy and economic adviser to President Reagan and now a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. "He is largely unknown in Republican circles," agrees Republican political consultant John Buckley, press secretary for New York Rep. Jack F. Kemp's presidential bid. "There is no perception of him," says Roger J. Stone, another leading Republican political consultant.

Not all governors, of course, are national figures. But it has become increasingly common for the governors of major states to wield national clout. Many governors--from Republicans Thomas H. Kean of New Jersey and John H. Sununu of New Hampshire to Democrats Mario M. Cuomo of New York and Bill Clinton of Arkansas--are influential in shaping both the political agenda of their parties and the policy agenda of Congress, particularly on issues confronting the states.

By and large, Deukmejian hasn't been among them. Deukmejian has not been a force on Capitol Hill. His relations with the California congressional delegation are cordial but distant, several members and aides say, and he has never testified before Congress. Nor has he been a significant participant in the Republican Party's intramural ideological debates; he remained distant from the presidential primaries this year until the result was long decided. He rarely interacts with the national press corps or national conservative activists.

This parochialism is remarkable considering the lineage in which Deukmejian stands--one that traces back not only to such nationally prominent California governors as Ronald Reagan and Earl Warren, but also in a sense to New Yorkers Franklin D. Roosevelt and Thomas E. Dewey. In the first half of this century, when New York was the nation's most populous and powerful state, its governors consistently shaped the national agenda. In the 12 presidential elections from 1904 to 1948, a New York governor headed the ticket for one or the other party nine times.

Since then, California has muscled its way to clear economic pre-eminence among the states, the economic boom fueling an explosion in population. Inexorably, if unevenly, political influence has followed. California now sends as many representatives to Congress as New York did at the height of its power; after the next congressional reapportionment (which will follow the 1990 Census), California will command a larger share of the Congress than any state in history. In the four decades before Deukmejian took office, every California governor save one made at least an exploratory run at the presidency. Earl Warren sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1948 and 1952. In 1960, Democrat Edmund G. (Pat) Brown seriously examined challenging John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and the rest of the Democratic field before deciding not to make the race.

Once California passed New York as the most populous state in 1964, it cemented its reputation as the launching pad for political trends, and its governors emerged as national figures almost as soon as they finished taking the oath of office. At the 1968 Republican convention, Ronald Reagan, just two years into his tenure as governor, offered himself for the presidency as the hero of the nascent anti-government conservative revolt. In 1976, Jerry Brown, also just two years into his term, declared the dawning of the "era of limits" and rocketed into the political stratosphere with a string of late primary victories over Jimmy Carter.

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