Inside McClintock’S Head

by Arnold Steinberg

What could have been.

LOS ANGELES–Republican candidate for California governor Tom McClintock is honorable and principled, intelligent and serious. He can be plainspoken in his eloquence. Now, with the election barely a week away, some may ask plainly: Why is he still running?

McClintock’s critics say he is not a team player. But McClintock supporters reply that the Republican team was AWOL last year. That’s when McClintock barely lost in the state controller’s race to a Democrat who outspent him 5-to-1. Republican kingmakers, according to McClintock partisans, instead funded likely losers.

Was it a chicken-and-egg situation? McClintock is more solitary than collegial. As politicians go, he is a loner. For many conservatives, he is right on the issues. But he also is not a coalition builder, even in his own party. To be more precise, early last decade, McClintock opposed then-Gov. Pete Wilson’s tax hike. And neither Wilson nor McClintock have forgiven each other. McClintock acted the role of spoiler last week, when he attacked Wilson as “California’s worst governor.”

Given McClintock’s mastery of the state’s budgetary process, this election, at the outset, was his time. But was it? As soon as Arnold Schwarzenegger announced, Republican Congressman David Dreier began to lead a growing coalition of relatively conservative defectors. Were they pragmatic or prescient–or sellouts?

Was McClintock done in by his fellow travelers? Barely a third into this brief campaign, conservative talk-show hosts tilted Schwarzenegger. There were the obligatory kind words for McClintock. But with friends like Sean Hannity…

McClintock became increasingly impatient with talk-show types repeatedly asking when he would quit the race. But didn’t McClintock’s campaign encourage such questions by its passive retreat? McClintock did not publicly challenge the vulnerable Schwarzenegger on his inconsistencies and flip-flops.

Conservative icon Bruce Herschensohn now has an independent-expenditure radio spot for McClintock. It’s funded modestly by the California Republican Assembly (CRA). In it, Herschensohn says that McClintock would be elected, if only true believers voted their conscience. That message comes too late.

McClintock’s critics feel he wants revenge on “country-club Republicans.” While McClintock is more comfortable with fiscal issues, he sees the Republican party as more than bookkeepers. But even on tax-and-spend matters, he often has differed with major corporations. There is a populist bent to McClintock. That may be another reason why the California Chamber of Commerce took sides, standing with Arnold.

But would McClintock knowingly sabotage the stronger Republican candidate, Arnold Schwarzenegger? This theory supposed that McClintock would draw enough Republican votes so that Democrat Cruz Bustamante would win. After all this recall fuss, we would end up, if that were possible, with someone worse than Davis. And Davis indeed may be California’s worst governor.

But, if Gray Davis is recalled, Schwarzenegger could win, even with McClintock in the race. Arnold seemingly maneuvered McClintock to quit; consequently, he looked less like a leader. In private polling, Arnold currently runs about seven points ahead of Bustamante. Democrat strategists have all but given up on the Cruzer. Their only hope is to defeat the recall. They want a final week of epic negativism, sufficient to drive risk-averse voters back to the devil they know. But they should have opened up on Arnold much earlier.

The simple explanation for Arnold’s current lead is not Arnold and his campaign. Despite his near-total name recognition, overwhelming media coverage, and massive ad campaign, Schwarzenegger had stalled until the last few days. But Schwarzenegger has lucked out on many counts, including the failure of Democrats to define him early. Also, Cruz Bustamante’s inept campaign has focused solely on nonwhite Democrats. His TV commercials show reaction shots only of ethnics. Not very smart, when the governor just signed controversial legislation giving driver’s licenses to illegal aliens. And Bustamante’s profound campaign theme runs something like this, “I know it will be hard to find my name on the ballot.”

And, ironically, Tom McClintock’s campaign has pretty much let Arnold off the hook. Schwarzenegger’s high profile was an early gift to McClintock, but his campaign didn’t know what to do. If the state senator had confronted Arnold daily, a dozen cameras would have covered him. Here was the perfect storm for an indigent candidate like McClintock who could barely afford paid media: unlimited free media.

Perhaps the turning point was the Great Debate last week. This was McClintock’s final opportunity to turn the corner. For reasons that only he knows, Tom McClintock did not engage Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Arnold Steinberg is a California-based political strategist.