SACRAMENTO — Pundits and politicians pondered Friday how a candidate with so much promise could fritter it all away. How did he blow this, they asked? It was the wrong question, based on a faulty premise: that California's governor--any governor--"automatically" is presidential timber.
That has been conventional wisdom for decades. And it's time to lay that puppy to rest. Gov. Pete Wilson just tossed a big spade full of reality all over the myth.
It has become almost a cliche: California's governor is the 800-pound gorilla because this state offers the biggest blocks of convention delegates and electoral votes. Any governor of such a "nation-state" can raise truckloads of money. Not only that, California's 1996 primary was advanced to March to provide the governor a leg up.
Twenty years ago, the late Robert Moretti told me that "the only reason" he gave up the Assembly speakership to run for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination "was to become President."
Dream on. A little history here is helpful:
No sitting California governor ever has won a presidential nomination. None. Gov. Earl Warren was chosen as the running mate for New York Gov. Tom Dewey in 1948, then the ticket failed to carry California. Two decades later, Gov. Ronald Reagan ran meekly in some late primaries and lost to Richard Nixon at the GOP convention. Reagan did not win the presidency until long after he had left Sacramento. Gov. Jerry Brown ran impressively in some 1976 primaries, but never had a chance against ex-Gov. Jimmy Carter of Georgia. Then Brown made a laughingstock of himself by running again in 1980.
Wilson stopped short of becoming a laughingstock. But he was foolish to run, regardless of his bold talk Friday about "pride" in "a good fight worth fighting."
This is not to say some sitting governor of California will not eventually win a presidential nomination.
But he or she will need to be popular enough at home to get away with spending months on the road, ignoring duties in arguably the nation's most complex state; any Sacramento-based candidate is handicapped by being 3,000 miles from Manchester, N.H.
A legitimate, impressive record also will need to have been built; a governor's national reputation must precede a presidential bid.
Wilson's candidacy was doomed from the start. He was not very popular at home. He was not known nationally. And, aside from some welfare and crime bills, he had little to credibly crow about from a disappointing first term. Then he lost his voice for two months.
His biggest albatross was the infamous pledge to serve a full second term. Wilson repeated that pledge right up to the moment he was reelected last November, then never uttered it again. Voters had forgiven his first-term performance and generously granted him a second chance. A business community hard hit by recession had dug deep for $26 million to reelect a Republican. Then he treated them all cavalierly.
"We underestimated the anger," a senior adviser admitted Friday.
So the right question is, why did this governor think he could get elected President next year in the first place?
The basic answer: an ego overinflated by his reelection comeback--against an inept challenger--coupled with an excess of Marine feistiness. Wilson loves fights and wanted to get into this one more than anybody else, certainly more than his advisers.
He bought the conventional wisdom and devoured the flattering analyses of some national pundits. "The candidate the White House fears most," he loved to quote from their writings. The governor particularly enjoyed reading the prediction of his late mentor, Nixon, that he would be the GOP front-runner.
But Wilson was not--never has been--a good campaigner. No emotion. No inspiration.
It may be true he whipped the best that California's Democrats had to offer, but this isn't saying much. Jerry Brown was a political corpse when Wilson beat him in a 1982 Senate race. Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy was weak in 1988. Dianne Feinstein was trying to become the state's first woman governor in 1990, but she had never run statewide and was carrying hometown baggage from liberal San Francisco. Yet, she came within 3.5 percentage points of winning. Last year, Kathleen Brown's campaign was a disaster.
Wilson never has been a hero to GOP activists; they've suspected him of being a moderate. He finished a distant fourth in a 1978 gubernatorial primary. And last year he lost one-third of the primary vote to an unknown computer nerd.
The smartest thing Wilson did in this presidential campaign was to finally get out and return to the job voters reelected him to.