Red vs. Red

Is the recall a death wish or a proper Republican primary?


Now that the California gubernatorial recall is on again, the single largest story at tonight's lone Schwarzenegger-participating debate and over the next 13 days may be the Republicans' increasingly desperate attempts to convince experienced conservative candidate Tom McClintock to make way for the novice Kennedy-in-law movie star.

Tuesday, for the first time, Arnold publicly asked McClintock to step aside, saying the Thousand Oaks true believer "should do some soul searching." He wasn't alone.

Fourteen former state party chairmen have backed Schwarzenegger and urged McClintock to step aside. "The mathematics is simple but profoundly important. We are in danger of repeating the same error well-meaning supporters of Ross Perot committed 10 years ago," recently resigned GOP Chair Shawn Steel wrote in a recent letter to party activists. "Can we imagine a life under Cruz Bustamante for years ahead? What would remain of the middle class or the existence of our party?"

The leading Republican elected official in California, Senate Republican leader Jim Brulte, threw in his support yesterday. "Somebody needs to recognize that the election of Cruz Bustamante is a real possibility if these two Republicans continue to divide the vote," Brulte told the Los Angeles Times. McClintock's stubborn run, he said, "puts at risk not only the election of a Republican governor—but the recall itself."

Could the Republicans' long-fought civil war between its Hollywood social moderates and suburban/rural social conservatives do the undoable—keep hated Governor Gray Davis in power? That looked much more likely Monday, when onetime governor hopeful Darrell Issa, who made the recall possible with $1.7 million in signature-gathering seed money only to be reduced to tears when Arnold's boys forced him out two days before the filing deadline, told the San Francisco Commonwealth Club Monday that if McClintock doesn't yield, "then I advise you to vote 'No' on the recall."

"I talked to Tom McClintock before he got into this race," Issa said on CNN yesterday. "He told me a couple of things that I'm going to hold him to. One, he said he wouldn't get in if it was a crowded field. Two, he said he wouldn't be a spoiler. And three, he said he could do the math… One of them has to make the right decision and has to make it in the next two days." (Issa has modified his original stance somewhat, telling various interviewers that he would vote "yes" on the recall no matter what.)

McClintock, a Goldwater/Reagan/Milton Friedman acolyte, has sworn from the beginning that he will not step down, and complains wryly that he's getting a raw deal. "If the most qualified candidate has to step aside every time a millionaire casts a lonely eye on a public office, then we've lost something very important in our democracy," he said this week. "This isn't a lark for me; it's what I've devoted my entire adult life to achieve for my state. And we've now reached a time when those reforms can no longer be postponed."

He's got a point there. While Schwarzenegger has been busy with Oprah Winfrey and Larry King, McClintock has been successfully slugging it out with his rival candidates in the two pre-"Super Bowl" debates, often seeming like the only adult on a stage full of cheap one-liners and extravagant promises by Cruz Bustamente, Peter Camejo and Arianna Huffington to spend more money on such things as full public financing of statewide elections. ("Well there's a great idea," McClintock retorted at the Sept. 17 Los Angeles Press Club debate. "In the middle of the worst fiscal crisis in this state's history, we're going to take money away from the schools, away from health care, away from all the vital services of government, and give it to politicians to run their campaigns.")

Although portrayed as a knuckle-dragging conservative, he is campaigning on fiscal, not social, issues. His district was solidly pro-Gore in 2000; he came closest of the seven failed Republicans to win statewide office in 2002 (despite being outspent by his Silicon Valley opponent five-to-one), and he has taken such non-Christian Coalition positions as being in favor of medical marijuana (on states rights grounds).

In short, he is nothing like Bill Simon, the grinning rookie fool state conservatives rallied around in 2002, in an effort to stave off RINO (Republican In Name Only) Richard Riordan. The former L.A. mayor ran a dumb and scatter-brained primary campaign—telling conservatives over and over again that they needed to get over their purity-seeking death wish on social issues—but no one knows what effect Gray Davis' $10 million worth of anti-Riordan ads had on the outcome. In some respects, the Oct. 7 recall is the untainted Republican primary the party never quite got around to having last time.

Is McClintock being railroaded simply because the George Bush-backed Riordan/Schwarzenegger wing is obsessed with his allegedly unelectable social views on abortion, gay rights and the like? Well, before you shed any tears, realize that that the conservative case against Arnold is largely on culture-war grounds. "Arnold supports abortion-on-demand, opposes Ward Connerly's Racial Privacy Initiative, and rejects school vouchers," Peter Robinson wrote at the National Review Online. "Do you care about the effort to restore some sense of decency to our public life? To preserve some semblance of traditional morality? If you had turned on your radio last week, you'd have heard Schwarzenegger yucking it up with Howard Stern. There may be a cruder, more offensive radio host, but I haven't heard of him."

As a member of the self-described "Taliban" wing of the state GOP told me last election night, during the Republicans' historic drubbing, "We need 10 years in the wilderness so we can rebuild around our core values." Those core values may include a Friedmanesque commitment to limiting government, but they also include less-electable, largely social concerns about abortion, morality, and cracking down on illegal immigrants.

The last issue especially may perversely save Gray Davis' neck. If enough conservatives conclude that an ex-MEChA Latino governor is more dangerous than the guy who not long ago was portrayed as a uniquely corrupt incompetent, then today's prediction by L.A. Times reporter Mark Barabak will have proved prescient: "If Gray Davis remains governor two weeks from today, he may well have Republicans to thank."