Free Minds & Free Markets

Bigger or Better?

Will Republican leaders embrace the tax-and-spend policies of Pete Wilson or Bill Weld's entrepreneurial government?

On election day 1990, Pete Wilson and William Weld looked like political twins. Both were moderate Republicans, lifelong public servants who had nonetheless avoided the deadly “insider” label. Wilson had been a state legislator, a mayor, and then a United States senator; Weld had been a local and federal prosecutor. As gubernatorial candidates, they had campaigned as tough on crime, avid environmentalists, supporters of gay rights, and prochoice on abortion.

But if Wilson and Weld were twins, they were hardly identical. Wilson is the classic workaholic, rising at dawn to work out on an exercise machine and often laboring on minute details of policy past midnight. He’s also hypersensitive to criticism, hates to negotiate, and loves to pick fights; one Republican consultant says Wilson “is always looking for bullets to bite.” Wilson often compares himself to Ronald Reagan—after all, Reagan also backed a hefty tax hike his first year in Sacramento—but in style and disposition he resembles Jimmy Carter more than the Great Communicator.

Weld, on the other hand, sometimes plays squash in the middle of the day and self-deprecatingly says he’s “a little lazy.” A Massachusetts Republican legislator says Weld, who won his first election last November, readily admits mistakes; he’s flexible but will “go to the mat” when he believes his stands are right. Still, the legislator says, “the governor never gets mad. He’s a very nice guy and everybody likes him.” Wilson likes Broadway show tunes; Weld, the early Rolling Stones.

The differences extend to their policies. Facing a budget crisis, ’Wilson repudiated the legacy of the California tax revolt—he raised taxes by $8 billion and increased spending by half that much. Weld, in contrast, stared down the big-government culture of “Taxachusetts.” He balanced his state’s budget with no new taxes or new government borrowing and cut total spending by 5.5 percent.

Wilson and Weld made these decisions on politics and policy consciously, and their approaches reflect a fundamental split in the way they view government. As two of the most prominent Republicans outside of Washington, they have the opportunity to define the governing ideas of the post-Reagan party. Will the GOP adopt the tax, spend, and regulate policies of Pete Wilson’s big-government conservatism? Or will it embrace Bill Weld, the good-government conservative who wants to shrink state programs, keep taxes under control, and emphasize efficiency and private initiatives over bureaucracy? Contrary to Election Day perspectives, neither Wilson nor Weld is a moderate. Both have ideas and ambitions that could remake the GOP.

“I sometimes feel like I’ve been campaigning since the day I was elected,” then-Sen. Wilson told Business Week in December 1987. It is his relentless drive, rather than any policy position or legislative accomplishment, that distinguishes Wilson. He is a professional politician, a nonstop campaigner—and very successful at his business. His 1988 Senate race made Wilson the number-one vote getter in the history of California.

No sooner had he chalked up that victory than Wilson had the rarest of opportunities—a chance to run for governor as the consensus Republican candidate. A fissure as destructive as the San Andreas fault splits the state GOP along geographic and ideological lines. In the South are the fire-breathing, tax-cutting Proposition 13 babies, many of them social conservatives. The Bay Area, by contrast, is home to the moderates, Atari Republicans who are liberal on social and environmental policy and squishy on taxes.

Under normal circumstances, California Republicans have a pathological compulsion to eat their young: the 1st Commandment (“Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican”) doesn’t apply in the state. In the 1986 U.S. Senate primary, right-wing television commentator Bruce Herschensohn lost to moderate Rep. Ed Zschau. When Zschau faced Alan Cranston that November, conservatives wouldn’t give Zschau any money; he lost to Cranston by a few thousand votes. Similarly divisive races are shaping up for the two Senate seats open in 1992.

Although he hails from San Diego, Wilson represents the moderate wing of Zschau and Northern California. He opposed Prop. 13 and supported Gerald Ford, not Ronald Reagan, in 1976. But when Gov. George Deukmejian announced that he wouldn’t seek a third term, Republican conservatives quickly joined moderates to back Wilson. Shortly after Deukmejian’s announcement, Republican Assemblyman Tom McClintock, the most fiscally conservative legislator in Sacramento, introduced a petition in the Assembly asking Wilson to run for governor. McClintock would soon regret that support.

The reason for the fleeting unity was reapportionment. California will add seven congressional seats to its 45-member delegation in 1992, and Republicans would dearly love to undo Democratic gerrymandering. The last time districts were drawn, Democrats held both the state house and the governor’s mansion. Today, although neither party has a big edge in voter registration, Democrats occupy three-fourths of the seats in the state Senate and 26 of the 45 congressional seats. If Republicans had undertaken their usual primary bloodbath in 1990, a Democrat might have easily won the governor’s race. Instead, conservatives figured a Republican governor—even a moderate one—would give the party a chance to veto any reapportionment plan that kept the Democrats entrenched. So while Bill Weld was pumping out $1 million of his own money into a Massachusetts primary campaign, Pete Wilson was cashing campaign checks and preparing for a Democrat opponent.

He had a tough time against former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein—a centrist who supports the death penalty, a probusiness “outsider” more conservative than Democratic party regulars. Reapportionment solidified Republican support for Wilson. But independent voters narrowly favored him for three other reasons; his opposition to hiring quotas, his antitax rhetoric, and his promise to appoint conservatives to the state bench. Those were the only substantive differences between the candidates. Wilson got 49 percent of the vote, Feinstein, 46 percent.

Wilson’s ad campaign was run by Larry McCarthy, a creator of the Willie Horton commercials. Wilson didn’t have Willie Horton, but he did have Willie Brown. The state Assembly speaker is a 26-year veteran and the most feared politician in the state. Brown, the consummate power broker, relishes his ability to break campaigns and careers. The speaker once described a series of ads he orchestrated as “the biggest con job” in state history. In his TV commercials and on the stump last year, Wilson warned that Feinstein would appoint Brown as her “vice governor.” Instead, it is Wilson himself who has teamed up with Brown.

Republicans have 31 votes in the 80-member Assembly, plenty to sustain a veto. And the California Constitution requires a two-thirds majority in both the Assembly and the Senate to pass tax hikes—meaning the Assembly Republicans can block any increase if they vote as a group.

Unlike Deukmejian, who pumped up law-enforcement spending but whose legislative agenda consisted mainly of budget vetoes, Wilson is an activist—many say the most ambitious governor California has seen since Pat Brown in the 1960s. “He sounded like Dianne Feinstein when he gave his State of the State address,” Willie Brown said approvingly in late July.

Despite the lopsided defeats of several environmentalist ballot initiatives in 1990, Wilson has pushed for a California Environmental Protection Agency to regulate pesticides and an aggressive $630-million program called “Resourceful California” to buy up land for preservation. “Though we face a serious budget crisis,” he said in April, “California will not cut back state environmental protection.”

Even more sacrosanct to Wilson is a series of state-funded prenatal and early-childhood programs he called “preventive government.” Such spending, the governor believes, will save welfare money down the road. The new cuts totaled $5 billion. But that’s all the cutting Wilson attempted. The rest of the gap was filled by $1 billion in accounting tricks and a whopping $8 billion in new taxes. (A Los Angeles Times analysis of the budget shows that $3.6 billion in “cuts” are actually still more accounting gimmicks and some unclaimed federal revenue. The Times also notes that general-fund spending in this budget increased by 7 percent. And future revenue projections are based on an economic growth rate of 3.5 percent this year, 10.5 percent next year, and 8 percent annually after that.)

Despite having attacked Feinstein for just such proposals, Wilson raised income-tax rates for families making more than $100,000 a year. He also went along with a 1.25-cent hike in sales taxes (putting the rate at 7.25 percent statewide, higher in many counties). The range of taxable items expanded, too, with the first-ever tax on newspapers and magazines and a confusing new tax on “snacks.” For example, under the snack tax, doughnuts packaged on a grocery-store shelf are taxable; doughnuts bought from a bakery aren’t. Commentators from David Brinkley to the anchors of ESPN’s “SportsCenter” have poked fun at the befuddling tax.

With the support of Speaker Brown, Wilson had little trouble rallying the Democrats behind more taxes and spending. He then alternately threatened and cajoled moderate Assembly Republicans to buck their conservative leaders and pass his program. Wilson eventually wooed the defectors he needed.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.


Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online