Media coverage of California’s October 7 recall election has predictably looked for historical parallels between the advent of Arnold Schwarzenegger as a politician and the rise of Ronald Reagan in the mid-1960′s. Arnold Schwarzenegger is no Ronald Reagan, nor should he attempt to be. A more important question faces California voters: Is Arnold Schwarzenegger the next incarnation of former California Governor Pete Wilson, who now serves as his campaign co-chair? If he isn’t, he must provide his own policy agenda and economic vision–especially one that is readily distinguishable from Wilson’s. After all, Wilson is the man who opposed the passage of Proposition 13–the California tax revolt–and once called Ronald Reagan, “the worst governor in the history of California.”
The presence of Wilson and his former staff on the Schwarzenegger campaign is significant for a self-evident reason. Wilson’s electoral and policy experiences provide the definitive frame of reference for Schwarzenegger’s campaign and his prospective administration. Like Wilson before him, Schwarzenegger will face hard policy choices when it comes to the state budget. Schwarzenegger calls himself a fiscal conservative. Conservatives and libertarians have good reason to be concerned, if not entirely skeptical, as Wilson would probably use the same language to describe himself.
Along with his former spokesman Sean Walsh, Wilson is one of the most visible faces of the Schwarzenegger campaign on the political chat shows. The political operatives who comprise Team Arnold can be legitimately branded as Wilson Redux. The most notable of them is George Gorton, who steered Wilson to two hard-fought victories in the 1990′s and guided Schwarzenegger’s ballot initiative to an easy victory last fall, despite tepid Republican support. Bill White, Wilson’s former chief-of-staff, is now the senior campaign manager.
Bill Whalen, yet another ex-Wilson staffer, wrote a compellingly prophetic piece eighteen months ago on the dismal state of the California GOP. Writing in Policy Review, he observed: “Vanity about grassroots politics aside, maybe it’s time California Republicans looked for a new way to win–a ‘star’ who can bypass the [GOP's] message and image problems.” And this was months before Republican Bill Simon, Gray Davis’ 2002 general election foe, ran a comically incompetent campaign.
Team Arnold’s reliance on Wilson Redux is problematic from a core policy standpoint. Governor Wilson’s fiscal record is mixed at best. He has never been a champion of taxpayer interests, and his solution to the last major state budget crisis–shortly after he took office in 1991–included tax increases along with spending cuts. This provoked 34% of GOP primary voters in 1994 to vote for Wilson’s opponent, tech entrepreneur Ron Unz. Public health spending increased substantially during his tenure, as did the appropriations for prison construction. A high water mark of his administration came in the area of welfare reform, where California served as a harbinger for national welfare reform.
The car tax, which government bureaucrats euphemistically call “the vehicle license fee,” is now one of the foremost issues in California politics. With the state’s budget in deficit, the tax is scheduled to triple from last year’s level. To his credit, Schwarzenegger has already vowed to roll back the increase. But the leading Democratic candidate to replace Gray Davis, Cruz Bustamante, is also for rolling back the increase. Wilson deserves a great deal of the blame for the current car tax increase. In the last year of his governorship he did reduce the car tax by a substantial margin, but he also acquiesced on the inclusion of the “financial trigger” that automatically increases the levy when California’s budget bleeds red.
The leader of the anti-car tax movement is Schwarzenegger’s most formidable Republican opponent in the recall race, state Senator Tom McClintock. A long-time legislative nemesis of the oft-spendthrift Governor Wilson, McClintock advocates abolishing the car tax entirely through the ballot box. Unlike Schwarzenegger, McClintock went into his campaign with three clear budgetary priorities. In addition to the abolition of the car tax, McClintock would rescind profligate energy contracts signed by Davis that force California ratepayers to pay many times the market price for electricity. He would also advance substantive reform of the workers’ compensation system, following a successful model enacted in Arizona. Last month, his colleagues in the Senate unanimously passed his legislation establishing a Bureaucracy Realignment and Closure Commission that would recommend the downsizing or elimination of government bodies that are either duplicative or unnecessary.
Schwarzenegger will have some in his circle prompting him to be equivocal and vague when it comes to California’s monetary matter–to ride the wave of his personal charisma and media celebrity on the platform of “cleaning house.” But eventually his opponents may challenge him to a debate. They may also offer the legitimate criticism that he is running as an outsider while aligning himself with yesterday’s insiders. These potential obstacles cannot be ignored.
Recent reports have Schwarzenegger consulting with individuals ranging from Warren Buffett, the world’s second richest Democrat, to supply-side economists like Art Laffer and Lawrence Kudlow. This is a welcome development. One can even engage in the quixotic intellectual fantasy that Austria’s most famous son is considering the sage works of two other Austrian expatriates, economists F. A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises. Ultimately, Schwarzenegger must decide for himself what his fundamental beliefs are with respect to government’s proper role in the economy.
Schwarzenegger may indeed articulate an overarching vision of limited, effective government that is forever mindful of “the people who work hard.” His professional life thus far is a testament to the importance of a clear purpose and effective follow through. So he need not be reminded of the end result of either’s absence in politics–fiddling, fumbling and failing. Just like Gray Davis.
Nikos A. Leverenz is a writer living in Sacramento, California.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire