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The state GOP's war with itself

September 28, 2007|John J. Pitney Jr. | John J. Pitney Jr. is professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has been struggling lately with conservatives from his own party. They've split on climate change, healthcare and the state budget. The conflict is not just about policy details but fundamentally different approaches to politics. The governor and his supporters emphasize flexibility; the conservatives emphasize principle.

The two sides have different bases of support. Republican primary voters tend to stick with conservative principle, although many campaign contributors favor electability. In 1966, for instance, voters overwhelmingly chose Ronald Reagan in the gubernatorial primary over former San Francisco Mayor George Christopher, who was more liberal, even though polls had shown that Christopher would do better in the general election.

The practitioners of flexibility believe that although the GOP holds the high ground on issues such as tax rates, the party is bucking public opinion on abortion, the environment and other key questions. Voters think what they think, the argument goes, and stubbornness won't change their positions.

The case for flexibility is pragmatic. Republicans lack the votes to get their way in the Legislature, so either they compromise or stalemate. People don't like stalemate, especially in the case of the budget, where inaction jeopardizes public services.

As Schwarzenegger said in February: "What is more principled than giving up some part of your position to advance the great good of the people? That is how we arrived at the Constitution of this country. I can guarantee you, our founding fathers would still be meeting at the Holiday Inn in Philadelphia if they wouldn't have compromised."

Those who stand firm on conservative principle acknowledge that they don't run the Legislature. But for that very reason, they argue, compromise won't win the GOP any additional support. Currying official favor just means helping the Democrats. A minority party, they say, must rely on the power of its beliefs. Only strong causes will rally the troops to write checks, walk precincts and stuff envelopes. "Flexibility" is a lame rallying cry.

Even worse, say the conservatives, the flexibility faction thinks that voters don't agree with the GOP and won't listen. That's defeatism, and defeatism usually ends in defeat. Conservatives think they can win when they make a strong, consistent case on the merits.

State Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks), a leading "principle" Republican, said this month that "the harder but certain way for a minority to become a majority is not to adopt the majority's views, but to develop a better vision of governance than the majority party, take that vision to the people and earn their charter to govern. That's what gives meaning to victory."

Both sides can point to the state's electoral history for guidance.

In 1966, conservatives say, incumbent Democratic Gov. Pat Brown thought Reagan would be a weaker opponent than Christopher. Instead, Reagan retired Brown. Advocates of flexibility point to the 1992 U.S. Senate election, when conservative Bruce Herschensohn, after beating moderate Rep. Tom Campbell in the primary, lost to liberal Barbara Boxer.

In the 2005 special election, Schwarzenegger took the principled approach by pushing controversial conservative ballot measures; they all lost. In his subsequent State of the State address, he listed the lessons: "Cut the warfare, cool the rhetoric, find common ground and fix the problems together." But conservatives can cite tough ballot campaigns their side won, and by decisive margins -- curbing racial preferences, limiting marriage to the union of a man and a woman, rejecting a tax increase for universal preschool.

Reagan is the ultimate authority in contemporary GOP politics, for both sides. During a recent address to the party's state convention, Schwarzenegger quoted a 1967 Reagan speech warning that a narrow party "can be highly disciplined, but it does not win elections. This kind of party soon disappears in a blaze of glorious defeat, and it never puts into practice its basic tenets, no matter how noble they may be."

But conservatives can quote from the same speech: "Let no one, however, interpret this to mean compromise of basic philosophy, or that we will be all things to all people for political expediency."

Reagan gave ample ammunition to both sides. In his 1981 inaugural address, he famously said that "government is the problem." Yet moments later, he added: "It's not my intention to do away with government. It is rather to make it work." As governor and president, he contracted government in some ways, expanded it in others. He cut taxes, and he raised them.

In light of the mixed record, what can good California Republicans do? They might remember the words of the late Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois: "I am a man of principle, and one of my basic principles is flexibility."

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