At the hot start of a hot August long ago, Governor Pete Wilson reached agreement with legislative leaders on the largest tax cut in California’s history — a $1.4-billion cut next year, rising to $3.6 billion over four years — and breathed a sigh of relief. With the full tax cut under his belt, Wilson claims an overall tax reduction of about $2 billion in his two terms. With only the first installment, he would still be a net tax-cutter — just. Without it, his record would be that of a man who had raised taxes net by more than $1 billion. Not a reputation to brandish in GOP presidential primaries. So the tax cut is the final but indispensable stage in the careful transmogrification of Pete Wilson from GOP moderate to conservative warrior.
Surprised? Don’t be. Wilson’s quiet revolution has received little attention outside California. He is now rarely mentioned among potential GOP candidates for 2000. Yet he will be leaving office on a high note. The California economy is in its 62nd month of economic expansion. A large budget surplus allows him to have both tax cuts and hikes in spending — e.g., to cut class sizes in the public schools. He has won his major political battles, notably the initiatives opposing illegal immigration, quotas, and bilingual education. And most watchers think he would be easily re-elected if he ran in November.
Given California’s electoral importance, this record should entitle him to glowing media profiles as GOP front-runner. Why his present obscurity?
The answer appears to be that he has succeeded deplorably — at least from a media standpoint. Republicans are supposed to start on the Right and move to the Center, even perhaps a few yards to the Left. Wilson has done just the reverse. He started in the Center and moved Right. Instead of “growing,” he has shrunk. By all the rules, he ought now to be an unpopular failure. And there is little appetite in the media for addressing his current embarrassing success. It is worth examining nonetheless.
It is hard to recall today just how disastrously liberal — with equal emphasis on adverb and adjective — Pete Wilson was at the beginning of his first term. He arrived in Sacramento apparently determined to transform the conservative California GOP into a socially liberal, good-government, public-interest group; an aide said at the time that he aimed to purify the party “as if 1964 [i.e., Goldwater and Reagan] had never happened.” In the 1992 Assembly primaries, he even supported moderate clones of himself against the now alienated conservatives. (His people mostly lost.) But his decision to compromise with the majority Democrats and raise taxes in his first budget by $7 billion — the largest single tax hike in California history — did most damage, turning off the voters and making him a pariah in his own party
Wilson reluctantly defended the tax hike in an interview with us as a case of fiscal necessity: “I hated doing it at the time . . . [But] we closed a gap of $14.3 billion. . . . That amounted to a third of the General Fund.”
Whatever its merits as good government, the tax hike was bad economics. Imposed as the California economy was being led by the defense industry into a recession, it deepened the misery and retarded the recovery even as neighboring states like Arizona rebounded.
In the run-up to the 1994 election, Wilson’s poll numbers collapsed. Kathleen Brown, his likely Democratic opponent, was 23 points ahead. And an unknown millionaire, Ron K. Unz, won a third of the votes with a shoestring campaign in the GOP primary.
This was a near-death experience and it produced a dramatic reformation. Wilson reprogrammed himself as a tough fiscal and social conservative. He began to prune government, to cut taxes, and to make California a more business-friendly environment. Some of the tax cuts were less than met the eye, but he had signalled a change of direction in economic policy — and it got results. Wilson himself deadpans that California today is so prosperous that “even a penniless Buddhist monk can afford to give thousands of dollars to Al Gore.” He is especially proud that the state has one-fifth of America’s spending on R&D. By various tests, the relative burden of government has fallen modestly under Wilson. Per $1,000 of personal income, for instance, tax revenue has gone from $72.45 to $71.47. And California employs 107 state workers per 10,000 people against a U.S. average of 151.
Such figures explain why many conservatives now take a favorable view of Wilson. The Hoover Institution’s George Shultz chairs his Council of Economic Advisors. Martin Anderson, President Reagan’s domestic-policy advisor, says Wilson has instituted important social reforms — notably “opportunity scholarships.” These are education vouchers for children at poor-performing schools. (A post-mortem conversion, since Wilson opposed the 1992 initiative on school choice — the loss of which causes Milton Friedman to make his verdict a qualified “broadly favorable.”)
But Wilson’s social conservatism was built most dramatically upon two hot-button issues: crime and illegal immigration. In 1992 a citizens’ group had put Proposition 187 on the ballot to deny non-emergency social benefits to illegal immigrants. Kathleen Brown, captive to her party’s ethnic base, called it “barbaric.” Pete Wilson, citing the immense fiscal burden they imposed on the state ($1.5 billion annually for education alone), endorsed it. He was denounced as a “racist,” a “nativist,” etc. But Wilson, an ex-Marine, never refuses a fight. And when the votes were in, Proposition 187 won with 59 per cent, Wilson won with 55 per cent, and the hapless Miss Brown lost with 41 per cent. The lessons of Wilson’s first term were unmistakable: social liberalism and high taxes put you thirty points behind in the polls; social conservatism and tax cuts give you a 14-point victory.
So when Wilson began his brief campaign for the 1996 GOP nomination, he gratefully accepted a journalist’s definition of “moderate” as “a conservative who is pro-choice on abortion” to describe himself. That crossed half the distance to the GOP’s presidential nomination. But in 1996 it could not save his doomed campaign. Not only did Dole have Wilson’s base — the GOP establishment — locked up; but Wilson’s running broke a pledge to his 1994 voters and financial backers that he would stay on for a full term. That was a big blunder, still cited by Californians from pols to Sacramento taxi-drivers as reason to distrust him.
His stance also left him at the 1996 San Diego Convention as the leading pro-choice spokesman in a pro-life party. Even today, abortion remains the most important issue separating Pete Wilson from most conservatives — an issue, therefore he needs to defuse.
Astute enough to know that waffling and wavering opportunistically on abortion is the one position everyone despises, he remains forthrightly “pro-choice” in principle. He therefore opposes a pro-life constitutional amendment as an unrealizable goal that will not prevent a single abortion. But he also deplores the “shocking 1.6 million abortions in America each year” and offers olive branches to pro-lifers in the form of practical measures to reduce this number now. These include such familiar restrictions as parental-consent laws and the ban on partial-birth abortions, but also reducing out-of-wedlock pregnancies in the first place by changing the culture of welfare. “We have cut teen pregnancy in this state since 1991 by almost 20 per cent,” he points out. And in a speech to the Christian Coalition last year, his list of such measures even included “teaching children premarital abstinence.”
From Wilson’s empiricist standpoint, this attempt to shape an all-Republican compromise is a reasonable one, offering pro-lifers a real reduction in abortions. Still, it will almost certainly fail. The abortion debate is about moral principles as well as outcomes. Pro-lifers cannot agree to shelve the principle that the state has a duty to protect innocent life — or the constitutional amendment that embodies it — even in return for a united Republican push for more practical restrictions on abortion. Nor is the moral Right likely to approve of at least one of Wilson’s measures to reduce out-of-wedlock pregnancies: encouraging the spread of contraception. And, finally, other GOP presidential contenders will outbid him for the support of religious conservatives, thus reducing their incentive to compromise. Wilson and George W. Bush are to Steve Forbes today what Forbes was to Pat Buchanan in 1996: the second-best alternative. The most Wilson can gain is to reduce hostility to himself among conservatives whose first priority is halting abortion.
Which makes it all the more imperative for him to win over other constituencies that most Republicans have neglected. One such constituency was obligingly identified for him by a 1997 Fabrizio – McLaughlin study as “cultural populists”: people worried about crime, declining standards, the balkanization of America, and the fraying of the social fabric in general. About a quarter of the electorate, these voters swung heavily GOP in 1994. But Republican politicians, frightened by the instant interpretation of media liberals that they were pandering to “angry white males,” backed nervously away from the cultural issues such as racial quotas and immigration reform. In fact, the liberal analysis was invented: cultural populists are disproportionately white, like most voters, but they are also disproportionately female, disproportionately young, and anxious rather than angry. Given no comfort by a nervous GOP, they swung back to Clinton in 1996.
Wilson, however, has assiduously addressed their concerns (and those of constituencies like small business) by intervening in three major battles — the campaigns over Proposition 209, barring race and gender preferences, 227, abolishing bilingual education, and 226, prohibiting labor unions from spending money on political causes without their members’ consent. Proposition 226 was narrowly defeated. But add Proposition 187, and that makes three landslide victories in four elections.
In fighting these California battles, Wilson and his political ally, Ward Connerly, became the spokesmen for conservatives worried about national disunity and social breakdown, in part because national GOP leaders went AWOL. Wilson’s own explanation for their absence under fire is that they are intimidated by the charges of racism and have accordingly allowed liberals to define the political agenda.
Will California ever be up for grabs for the GOP?
Compare this pusillanimity with Wilson’s own unyielding stance. When he was attacked over 187 and 209 for exploiting “wedge issues,” he replied in a public speech (at the California GOP’s Hispanic Summit): “Wedge issues are those that liberals want to duck . . . Wedge issues don’t get to be wedge issues unless the underlying problems are real, and if there is such a pervasive sense of injustice and outrage that they cannot, or morally ought not, to be ignored . . . Slavery was a wedge issue.” The audience applauded.
The reply from Democrats and the media to Wilson’s cultural populism is that it is a shortsighted tactic which alienates Latinos, who are the fastest-growing ethnic group in the U.S. and a natural GOP constituency. This argument has spooked many California Republicans. Gubernatorial candidate Dan Lungren, strongly conservative on most issues, pointedly refused to back the initiative banning bilingual education. His aides subtly distance him from Wilson, even though they are friends and Wilson is co-chairman of Lungren’s campaign. And Lungren presents himself to Latinos as a good Catholic.
Behind these divergent political strategies lies a deep disagreement about how best to win over Latinos (and other minorities) to the GOP. The standard GOP approach, modeled largely on Jack Kemp’s appeals to black Americans, is to treat Latinos as a distinct ethnic group and to emphasize the similarity between certain Latino traits (family values, strong work ethic) and Republican philosophy while avoiding issues which can be stigmatized as anti-Hispanic. In sordid practice, of course, this approach often degenerates into treating the minority in question as a liberal constituency. For instance, the GOP has recently helped restore social benefits to immigrants on the explicit grounds that this would win Hispanic votes. But even in its pristine form, this appeal still emphasizes and so perpetuates ethnic identification.
In the long run, that is bad news for the GOP. As the failure of its wooing of black Americans has shown, ethnic loyalty will trump shared political values every time. The switch in Hispanic voting intentions on both 187 and 227 during a campaign in which these issues were consciously “racialized” by the Democrats further illustrates the point.
The alternative approach, symbolized by Wilson, is to address minorities principally as Americans who share common concerns with the rest of the nation. Such an appeal is based upon the evidence of recent history that the more deeply minorities assimilate — in particular the less they retain a minority consciousness — the more likely they are to vote Republican. Immigrant white ethnics have moved rightward politically as they melted in the American pot, and black Americans have grown less Republican as ethnic ideologies of Black nationalism and Afrocentrism have spread among them. Short of enlisting, voting Republican is just about the ultimate expression of assimilation.
So the propensity of Latinos to vote Republican will increase in line with their assimilation into the American nation. Those Latino voters attracted by a message of American unity rather than by ethnic appeals will be more reliably Republican. In order to attract them, the GOP will not need to dilute its message — or its appeal to non-minority voters (the anxious white females above). What Wilson’s critics gloss over is that he won landslide majorities on Propositions 187, 209, and 227, and in doing so attracted substantial Latino minorities — 31, 24, and 37 per cent respectively. By contrast the Dole – Kemp ticket in 1996 got 21 per cent of Hispanics and 12 per cent of blacks.
What matters long term, of course, is fostering a more rapid assimilation of Latinos. But that also justifies Wilson’s opposition to bilingual ghettos, which perpetuate ethnic loyalties; to racial quotas, which give people a material incentive to think ethnically; and to illegal immigration, which retards the social and economic assimilation of legal immigrants already here. Wilson is even prepared to use the unadorned language of national interest in discussing legal immigration, arguing that America is “the most generous nation in the world. We annually admit more legal immigrants than all the other nations in the world combined. And we have every right to do what the others do — and that is to set definite criteria and admit people based upon our needs.”
If this frankness seems quixotic, the hard evidence is that it wins elections short term and holds out the prospect of making Latinos more amenable to Republican politics long-term.
But this analysis risks making Pete Wilson sound too original. On most issues he steers slightly to the right of his party’s mainstream. As a senator, he strongly backed missile defense and fiscal prudence, repeatedly winning the Treasury Watchdog award. He also enjoyed ratings from 75 to 90 per cent from the American Conservative Union. Today he favors school choice, free trade, NAFTA, and privatization. Asked how he would use the U.S. budget surplus, he says simply: Cut taxes.
IS Wilson now a committed conservative? And if so, what happened? Wilson himself claims a politician’s consistency: not he but the circumstances have changed — e.g., the affirmative action he supported became the quotas he resists. Paradoxically, some of his old critics among California conservatives agree. Assemblyman Tom McClintock argues that Wilson is still the tax-hiker of 1991: the full $3.6-billion tax cut requires revenue rises that will never be met after the Asia meltdown. Taxpayers will still pay $287 a year per family more than under the last governor. Wilson’s budget office replies that it underestimated recent revenues by 14 per cent, and that future cost-of-living adjustments in welfare payments depend upon the tax cuts going ahead.
Time will resolve the narrow statistical dispute. But McClintock is right to point out that there is a lot of new spending in the budget. Probably there will always be a good-government moderate inside Wilson, struggling to get out. His instinct is for cutting class sizes as much as government (Friedman wryly says: “At least it’s better than spending it on more bureaucrats.”) as long as it can be done with fiscal prudence.
Still, it can hardly be denied that Wilson has become conservative in a broader sense — perhaps pushed into conservatism by fiscal and social crises that came his way and the popular sentiments they aroused. Columnist and former NR publisher Bill Rusher gives that explanation a twist of bitter lemon: “Wilson is not a convinced philosophical conservative,” he says. “He is an opportunist. But unlike most politicians, he is a courageous opportunist. Once his calculations point to conservatism, he will not be blown off course by attacks from the media. If his political calculations do not change, he may even die a conservative. This is less than ideal, but better than most.”
“Most” here means Wilson’s rivals in the primaries — notably Texas governor George W. Bush. Bush is an untested figure alongside a big-city mayor, U.S. senator, two-term governor, and “Comeback Kid” like Wilson. Bush has faced no crises and advanced few causes. In his first term, as W. S. Gilbert said of the House of Lords, he “did nothing in particular — and did it very well.”