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CAPITOL JOURNAL

The Wrong Way to Break a Promise

March 27, 1995|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — To quote Gov. Pete Wilson, "some things are right, some plainly are wrong."

You may have heard the litany: Illegal immigration, the welfare system, reverse discrimination, parole for violent hoods--that's all wrong. What's right is rewarding people who work hard, pay their taxes, play by the rules. . . .

Fine. But it seems to me there also is a right way and plainly a wrong way to announce you're running for President--especially after you've repeatedly promised that you won't run and now have decided it's OK to hand over your office to the enemy.

Politicians can get away with breaking promises. It's all in how they do it. Ronald Reagan was a master. He'd sadly tell people how much it pained him to raise their taxes, but assure them they'd actually be better off. When he traded arms for hostages, however, people weren't as forgiving because he never owned up to it. George Bush was too cavalier in breaking his "Read my lips: No new taxes" pledge; he didn't try to explain it and paid the price.

With Wilson, it's not just that he promised us a full term and now wants out, it's also who would replace him. No slur intended of Lt. Gov. Gray Davis--he might make a fine governor--but that wasn't the deal voters agreed to. Wilson won because many voters, while not thrilled with the incumbent, were very leery of Democrat Kathleen Brown, partly because her brother is Jerry Brown. Now Wilson is willing to turn over the office to Jerry Brown's former top aide.

The governor's hometown newspaper, the San Diego Union-Tribune, a career-long supporter, put it like this in an editorial:

"To be blunt, there is no honorable way for Wilson to get around his 1994 campaign promise to California voters. . . . If the governor betrays his pledge, he will give an already cynical electorate one more reason--an entirely justified reason--for distrusting politicians. . . . Wilson has an aggressive (state) agenda. . . . He should finish what he started."

*

The governor has some explaining to do. He owes the voters. And the right way to have announced he was running for President and breaking his word was to have talked to them directly about it.

People tend to forgive if they're asked for forgiveness. Anybody has a right to change his mind--and what's more American than aspiring to be President?--but people want to hear the reason.

"It's breathtaking in its audacity," says one GOP strategist of Wilson's vow-breaking. "But people will shrug their shoulders and say, 'What the heck, he's a politician.' What's a more typical political thing to do than to promise not to do something, then a few months later do it? But he should have dealt with it."

Wilson wouldn't even have to level with Californians. He wouldn't have to say, "Hey, this is once-in-a-lifetime. I'm hot. In another four years I may be washed up. Or some other Republican may be President. This is my best shot. You think I'm going to pass it up just because of some silly pledge I should never have made?"

No, he simply could have said: "I can do more for California in Washington than I can in Sacramento. I didn't realize Dick Cheney, Jack Kemp and Dan Quayle would drop out of the race, leaving a weak field. It's important we beat Bill Clinton. Bob Dole and Phil Gramm are good senators, but they lack my executive experience. They've spent their entire careers inside the Beltway. I've been out here with you and understand your problems."

Wilson mentioned a few of these things in Washington over the weekend during sessions with newspaper editors and TV interviewers.

But he missed an opportunity last week in his announcement. He could have sat in his Capitol office and done a brief "my fellow Californians" TV bit, looking presidential. Then he could have gone out and answered reporters' questions; maybe even held a Republican rally. That would have been the right way.

*

Instead, Wilson did it the plainly wrong way if he's at all concerned about public reaction to his flip-flop. What he did was "neat but tacky," says the GOP strategist.

He invited a couple dozen people--crime victims, DAs, tax rebels--to the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. in Los Angeles. He gave a speech to 15 TV cameras, accepted praise from the invitees and refused to answer any reporters' questions.

This was mainly an anti-tax, pro-prison "right and wrong" message to New Hampshire voters--not an explanation to Californians--and he didn't want it being stepped on by pesky questions about a broken promise.

Wilson complained that government has "lost track of the bedrock values upon which we've built this country." But he didn't mention the old bedrock value of keeping your word.

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