California conservatives are more responsible than anyone else in the state for putting the recall initiative on the ballot, with the possible exception of Governor Gray Davis. But the recall now presents them with an excruciatingly difficult choice. Should they go for state legislator Tom McClintock, or for Arnold Schwarzenegger? McClintock is a smart conservative who understands how California got into its current mess and how to get out of it, but is generally considered unlikely to win. Schwarzenegger is the leading Republican in the race, but his views are decidedly less conservative.
Arguing in favor of pragmatism is the nature of the leading Democrat, lieutenant governor Cruz Bustamante. He is running well to the left of Davis, even Davis in full pander mode. He wants higher corporate taxes and price controls on gasoline. In a state that has been losing productive citizens and businesses to other states, Bustamante’s idea of leadership is to bash Wal-Mart for not providing more generous benefits to its employees. No conservative, or centrist, can want to see Bustamante win.
In contrast to the leftist Bustamante, the conservative McClintock, and the careerist Davis, Schwarzenegger has not provided much evidence as to what kind of governor he would be. He has taken a strong stand on the question of giving driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants: for reasons of both security and respect for the law, the answer has to be no. He has shown an interest in libertarian economics in the past, and he has said that he would reduce taxes and cap the state’s budget growth–sensible steps in one of the most overtaxed states in the nation. He takes a laissez-faire view of medical marijuana that other politicians would be wise to emulate.
On other issues, he has been a disappointment. On the environment, abortion, and gay rights, he has adopted a mostly liberal agenda. He has damned proponents of color blindness as “right-wing crazies.” He has made some proposals for political reform that sound good but collapse on inspection. Banning fundraising during budget season, for example, would do little but increase the pace of fundraising before and after the budget was written.
Some of Schwarzenegger’s supporters hope that he would reform California’s economic policies in the manner of a Margaret Thatcher–or a Tom McClintock, for that matter. One reason for lingering doubt is Schwarzenegger’s refusal to pledge not to raise taxes. That may mean that he intends to raise taxes once elected. Or it may mean that he wants to leave his options open, which may amount to the same thing: A governor who has not taken the no-tax-hike pledge will face very strong pressure to raise taxes.
That possibility, in turn, complicates the pragmatic case for Schwarzenegger. Would it really be good for Republicans to hold the governorship if it results in a tax increase and, in all likelihood, further economic pain for the state?
If McClintock were running as the sole Republican in the race, he might be doing rather well today; we can only speculate. But several polls put him well behind Schwarzenegger with two weeks left in the race. McClintock could cost Schwarzenegger the election. California conservatives seeking the prudent course must weigh two probabilities: 1) that their support for McClintock really would swing the race to Bustamante, and 2) that a Governor Schwarzenegger would better serve the long-term interests of conservatives than a Governor Bustamante. Conservatives of good will and clear thought will reach different conclusions about these matters.
If Schwarzenegger does not want McClintock to deprive him of the chance to be governor, he will have to deprive McClintock of the chance to be a spoiler. If Schwarzenegger offers conservatives a clearer indication that he is prepared to stare down the taxers and spenders in the legislature–and perhaps also to facilitate a McClintock bid for the Senate–conservatives will be able to give him their undivided support. If not, the spoiler for the Schwarzenegger campaign may well be the candidate himself.