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Davis Won By Toeing the GOP Line

Democratic candidates are using the conservative agenda to win elections, but where does that leave Republicans?

November 05, 1998|DAN SCHNUR | Dan Schnur is a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley's Institute of Governmental Studies and a political analyst for KGO Radio in San Francisco

The next governor of California has promised to cut taxes. He ran TV ads saying he was tough on crime. In the last days before Tuesday's election, he repeatedly promised that he would be "tight with a buck."

The next governor of California, Gray Davis, is a Democrat who talks like a Republican. And that provides the surest proof yet that the conservative revolution that began with Ronald Reagan is a bit closer to successful completion.

While that is somewhat sweet news for conservatives, the size and scope of Democratic victories in this week's elections are such that Republicans must come to terms with their own political deficiencies. Rather than continuing to wage war on issues that have been largely resolved, the GOP's next generation of leaders must pick up the fight on policy fronts where serious opposition still remains.

Since the passage of Proposition 13, voters have viewed Republicans as the party more likely to cut taxes. But recent polls show that the GOP has lost that distinction--small wonder in a year in which Republicans did not make tax reductions a political priority at either the state or national level. Next year, we must return to the party's central economic tenets.

The other important battle that still looms is over education. Two areas for reform stand out: the need to allow qualified individuals from other professions to teach in their areas of specialty and the need to allow parents a larger number of alternatives for their children's schooling through the implementation of charter schools, vouchers and expanded school choice. Both concepts are supported by majorities of California parents. Both are strenuously opposed by the education unions that lend their support to Democrats. As public pressure for school choice and competition continues to grow, conservative lawmakers must lead the fight for these changes.

Whether Davis actually governs like a conservative, which is ultimately more important than the manner in which he campaigned, is yet to be seen. But Davis won this election not by running against conservative ideology but by conceding to it. Unlike in his 1992 Senate campaign, where he ran as the only true liberal in the race, Davis centered his campaign this year on a centrist platform of crime-busting and fiscal conservatism.

Still, there are good reasons that Davis is a Democrat. He has opposed ballot initiatives from past years that have cracked down on illegal immigration, ended racial preferences and instituted term limits on elected officials. The trial lawyer lobby convinced him to avoid the fight against Proposition 211, the frivolous lawsuit initiative. The unions strong-armed him into staying away from the North American Free Trade Agreement and other free trade legislation.

But Davis also recognized that California was not moving back to the left. So he stressed those issues that placed him on common ground with conservatives and used this to his benefit in his quest for the support of crossover Republicans and independent voters.

Republican efforts to paint Davis as soft on crime were unsuccessful not because Davis' credentials on public safety issues are particularly strong but because California voters have come to believe that almost all politicians, regardless of party registration, understand the necessity of implementing harsher penalties against violent criminals. This is a victory for the self-proclaimed New Democrats, who have consciously emulated Republican ideology on a wide range of issues in order to become more electable. But it is an even more striking victory for the conservative movement, which has so dominated the crime debate over the past several years that no credible opposition voice exists.

Conservatives have won similar battles on welfare and immigration reform and on moving power from the federal government to the states. While pockets of liberals still raise their voices in protest against these policy evolutions, their efforts resemble those of the occasional Japanese soldier found in the South Pacific still determined to win World War II for his homeland.

Democrats won Tuesday because they have absconded with the Republican agenda. It's time for the GOP to take it back.

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