EDITOR’S NOTE: Former California governor Pete Wilson (R.) is a co-chairman of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s gubernatorial campaign. Gov. Wilson recently spoke to National Review editor Rich Lowry about the controversy surrounding Arnold’s Schwarzenegger’s support for Proposition 187, the recall race, and even Victor Davis Hanson and Mexifornia.
Rich Lowry: Why was Proposition 187 necessary?
Gov. Pete Wilson: Bill Clinton in a televised town-hall meeting said that an irate questioner was right when he expressed resentment that he as a local taxpayer was having to fund maternity care and delivery care for young women coming to University of California hospitals from across the border. And he said at the time, and this is not a verbatim quote obviously, “I agree with you, it’s unfair, it’s federal failure, and it is unfair to California, you should tell the San Diego County supervisors to send me the bill.” Well, his answer was great, it was vintage Clinton and it was a great crowd-pleaser and it evoked laughter and applause. And then when several governors went to Washington with the bill in hand, he turned out to be a deadbeat. 187 was a protest, the loudest, clearest taxpayer protest since the Boston Tea Party.
Lowry: Where does it stand now, legally?
Gov. Wilson: Well, that’s another of Gray Davis’s derelictions. When Davis came to office, he announced that, even though he strongly disagreed with 187, he would nonetheless honor the will of the people, the will that had been expressed 60 to 40 in a landslide victory for 187. And, having said that, he then engaged in absolutely two-faced collusive mediation. And of course, it was two-faced and it was collusion, because he was not in a dispute with the opponents. And they in fact used this collusive mediation to kill it.
Lowry: What of the argument that Prop 187 — although it got about 31 percent of the Hispanic vote — that it destroyed the Republican party’s position among this growing constituency?
Gov. Wilson: That is mythology. It is a self-serving effort on the part of the opponents to intimidate — first to poison the minds of those who could be persuaded by their false arguments that it was about race rather than about immigration, and second, to intimidate Republican office holders, to try to poison the water. It also had a greater purpose to try to persuade people who voted for it that they had done some terrible thing. It was totally unsuccessful in a latter regard. If it were on the ballot today, it would pass again, at least by the same margin, or by a better margin. But unfortunately, a lot of the Latino Californians who were most recent arrivals — and those in particular who get their information from Spanish-language media — were totally misled, and deliberately misled, and I suspect a great many of them were persuaded that they were living in a land of bigots, surrounded by people hostile to them, which is simply untrue.
Lowry: Is Gray Davis corrupt?
Gov. Wilson: Yes.
Gov. Wilson: Well, he holds fundraising events with industries who have legislation on his desk at bill-signing time. That is something that I think most other governors have quite assiduously avoided.
Lowry: Why is the state is such dire fiscal condition? What happened?
Gov. Wilson: When he first came to office, he said, “I’d appreciate your counsel.” I said, “I will give you one bit of advice that is of critical importance: You as governor, with the power that the governor of California has, are the only thing standing between this utterly irresponsible legislature and financial ruin for this state. That is not exaggeration. If you don’t stop them, and you can, by just refusing to sign a budget or vetoing a bad one, if you don’t make them fiscally responsible, then don’t expect that they will. They will instead spend through the multi-billion dollar surplus that I have left you, they will spend through every penny of revenue, including what clearly looks like a windfall, and then they’ll spend money they don’t have. But you can stop that — you have the power to do it, I did it every year for eight years. You’d better set them straight early, or else you’re going to wind up in desperate trouble.” Well, he has.
Lowry: If Davis is corrupt and has so badly botched things, why haven’t Republicans beaten him already?
Gov. Wilson: For the same reason that we didn’t beat him the first time in 1998 — we ran a very bad candidate, who ran a badly flawed campaign. Dan Lungren is a friend, but I would have to tell you, he was the biggest disappointment as a candidate that I have ever seen. It was remarkable. Dan demonstrated as a candidate an incredible combination of political naïveté and arrogance. And I take no joy in saying that because it took down the whole ticket and just wiped us out. So then we had Simon. Bill, who was a nice young guy, was total novice in politics who decided that he wanted to run for statewide office.
Lowry: Why is Schwarzenegger the one to save the state’s Republicans?
Gov. Wilson: I’m not going to tell you that he’s Ronald Reagan, but I will tell you that he does have qualities — important qualities — that are very much akin to those that made Reagan a great success. He is a fiscal conservative. He is not as conservative as I am on social issues, but that probably won’t hurt him in this state. And he is going to be conservative on the issues that most Californians, who style themselves as conservatives, agree with him on. He will be tough on crime, he will be fiscally conservative.
Lowry: We know Arnold considers himself a fiscal conservative, but does he have the gumption to go up there and confront a Democratic legislature even when he’ll be portrayed as a nasty partisan for doing it?
Gov. Wilson: Sure. I had a very lengthy conversation with him, and I asked him: “Do you want this job badly enough to work at it as hard as you’re going to have to work in order to do it right? Arnold, it is going to mean from early morning till late at night, day after day, month after month, you are going to have to butt heads with the legislature, but if you’re willing to do that, it’s a great job, and you have the power as governor to beat them.” So the answer to your question is, “Yes.” More important, I think that, like Reagan, he will have core convictions and I think he’s a competitor, and he can be very focused, and he doesn’t like to lose.
Lowry: Will there be an effort to get the other Republicans out of the race as we go forward?
Gov. Wilson: “If it looks like it’s between Cruz and Arnold and could be close, then I think they should, and I would hope that they would, and I think the one most likely to would be Simon. I think a lot of people would say, “Bill, you’re young, you’ve got some political future, but if you want to have any, then by God, you ought to do the right thing, and the right thing is to tell your people that you’re going to vote for Arnold.” And the likelihood of McClintock getting out — McClintock is not a team player, but he is no fool. If he’s going nowhere, then I think there’d be enormous pressure.”
Lowry: Will Davis definitely be recalled?
Gov. Wilson: If Arnold is as good as I think, then I think he’s going to win it. I think the recall is almost cinched, and I’ll tell you why: once someone as strong as he was on the ballot, and once you had a Democrat with a name go on the ballot, I think that cooked Davis’s goose.
Lowry: Last thing: Why did you think of the Victor Davis Hanson cover story a few issues ago about immigration and California?
Gov. Wilson: Yes, Hanson’s terrific. He is remarkably insightful. I would disagree with only one thing and that was his first sentence. He said California “gave up” years ago on contesting illegal immigration. That’s not true. First of all, the actual responsibility to control the border, legally and constitutionally, is with the feds. Second, they really didn’t give up — 187 was, I think, remarkable. And it was scuttled by the courts. So I wouldn’t agree with him that they have quit fighting it. They don’t see the means at hand with this governor to do that, but hell, 187 would pass today, I think perhaps by a greater margin.