Politics & Policy

Peaking Tom

A conservative tries to become California's next governor.

Conservative Tom McClintock isn’t worried about spoiling fellow Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger’s bid for governor in California. “You could say the same thing about him,” he says. “He’s spoiling my chance to become governor.”

McClintock, a 47-year-old state senator from Ventura County, is the one candidate in the race who can honestly say he’s surging. Last weekend’s L.A. Times poll had him shooting up to 12 percent, doubling his popularity from a few weeks earlier. This mark put him behind frontrunner Cruz Bustamante (35 percent) and GOP heavyweight Schwarzenegger (22 percent), but also far ahead of the rest of the pack.

He is suddenly California’s dark-horse candidate for governor.

Third place isn’t the same thing as first place, of course, but McClintock does appear to have positive momentum. If the supporters of withdrawn-candidate Bill Simon (six percent) get behind him, he’ll be just about within the margin of error of second place — and in a statistical dead heat with the Terminator.

McClintock is doing so well because he has become the clear favorite of California conservatives who are disturbed by Schwarzenegger’s refusal to rule out tax hikes to balance the Golden State’s budget, to say nothing of Schwarzenegger’s social liberalism on issues such as abortion.

He also brings plenty of political experience to the table, having been elected to the California legislature for the first time in 1982. Last year, he ran for controller and lost by a fraction of a percentage point despite being outspent 5-to-1 by his opponent. He outperformed every other Republican running for statewide office.

“There is a great deal Arnold Schwarzenegger could teach me about making movies,” says McClintock. “There is a great deal I could teach him about state finances. Unfortunately, there won’t be any training period for out next governor.”

McClintock already has a plan for his first day on the job. “I’d issue an executive order rescinding Gray Davis’s tripling of the car tax, void the high-priced electricity contracts he approved, and call a special session of the legislature to get worker compensation costs under control. I’d do all that before lunch.”

He has an agenda for the afternoon as well: “I’d start to eliminate agencies that duplicate functions performed by other arms of the government. Then I would begin to look at contracting out many public services. All of this would save the state billions.”

Ultimately, McClintock would like to see annual state-spending increases capped to match the combined rate of inflation and population growth. If this had been done just five years ago, he says, California would have a budget surplus today rather than a big deficit.

The prospect of Gov. Schwarzenegger worries him. “There’s a dirty little secret about California tax policy: It takes a Republican to raise them,” says McClintock.

That’s because tax hikes require a two-thirds majority in the California legislature. Although Democrats dominate both houses, they still need to pick off a few GOP votes to raise taxes. “When a Democratic governor proposes a tax increase, we can count on Republicans to unite against it,” says McClintock. “When a Republican governor proposes a tax increase, however, he can always bring along the necessary number of Republicans.”

McClintock continues: “That’s what happened in 1991, when Pete Wilson imposed the biggest tax hike any state has ever had in American history. He had just won election saying he was against tax increases but he refused to rule them out. Now all of his people are advising Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Schwarzenegger is saying the same thing Wilson did. That concerns me.”

Needless to say, McClintock has plenty of enemies within his own party. Many of them — plus a few friends — will try to convince him to drop out, noting that the combined strength of Schwarzenegger, Simon, and McClintock is possibly enough to pick the next governor.

Yet there are several reasons why conservatives may want to stick with McClintock the whole way. First, McClintock’s withdrawal would have Republicans betting everything on Schwarzenegger’s success — and if one of those damaging rumors about the actor turns out to have political traction, McClintock’s candidacy becomes a handy insurance policy. Second, if a conservative like McClintock can’t be governor, it may be in the interests of conservatives to have either Gray Davis not recalled or his ally Cruz Bustamante installed as his replacement, in the belief that California Republicans next year will be able to campaign at all levels against either Davis himself or the Davis legacy.

Finally — and perhaps most importantly — McClintock is the only committed conservative in the race. He’s the best in the field and would be a fine governor for a state that desperately needs one.

John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.

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