The Case for Governor Tom McClintock

Why progressives should vote for the most conservative candidate in the race to replace Gray Davis

Three weeks before the Oct. 7 gubernatorial recall election, state Senator Tom McClintock stood outside the Irvine Transportation Center and told reporters why he should replace Governor Gray Davis. Standing at a makeshift podium, his demeanor seemed, if possible, simultaneously nonchalant and stiff. He looked—there's no other way to put it—comfortable being uncomfortable. He makes bargain-shoe salesmen look charismatic.

His words, though passionate, weren't memorable, which isn't really a problem: if you've watched any five-minute McClintock interview in the past year, you've likely heard everything he has to say. Yes, you were probably startled by his intense, cockeyed stare; encyclopedic knowledge of government intricacies; or social stands to the right of Dwight D. Eisenhower.

But don't be frightened. Despite initial appearances, McClintock is the best choice to serve as governor of California for the next three years.

***

Let me explain.

Start with character. Unlike his top competition—Davis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Cruz Bustamante—McClintock does not lie, duck debates, accept illegal contributions, hide from reporters, flip-flop positions, defend crooks, pander to special interests, place party loyalty over principles, rely on one-liners, award no-bid contracts, surround himself with sleazy advisors or pretend good government is as simple as marketing a movie.

Let's be blunter: even if McClintock was as ruthlessly ambitious and unprincipled as the other candidates (he isn't), he would still deserve support in this special election.

Why?

Checks and balances.

I'm hardly a conservative, but the Democrats—rulers of all three branches of state government for the past four years—have proven themselves unwilling to control taxes, spending and bureaucratic growth. After four years of Davis, California's $10 billion surplus became a $38 billion deficit last fiscal year. For those of you counting, that's a $48,000,000,000 flip. Note the zeroes: it's enough money to fund several small- and medium-sized federal agencies for the next 50 years.

Is there reason for alarm? Not, apparently, if you're Davis or his Democratic allies in the legislature. They've spent like whiskey-drunk business guys on an expense-account trip to Vegas. While California's population rose 21 percent during the Davis era, the Democrats raised state spending by a whopping 40 percent. They've added 44,000 new public employees to the state payroll and, in the midst of the current fiscal crisis, strapped taxpayers with an additional $700 million per year in ridiculously generous public-employee pension perks. I could go on, but you get the point.

This hemorrhaging of public funds coupled with a continuous demand for new tax revenue while government services are routinely slashed leads me to an observation sure to offend some of my fellow progressives. Sometimes the best endorsement is inadvertent. Ask Sacramento Democrats what they think of McClintock. They'll likely tell you the last man they want holding the veto pen to their spending habits is the relentlessly frugal 47-year-old conservative from Thousand Oaks. At the moment, that's good enough for me.

***

I'm calling my choice "Tough Love for California's Democratic Party," a drifting organization desperately in need of self-examination and reform. The party is so out of touch with legitimate citizen anger about the state's massive budget deficit that its elected officials are proposing new spending projects even during a heated recall race largely about finances.

That fact alone should have rank-and-file Democrats manning the barricades alongside Republicans and Independents. Davis and Bustamante, the state's top Democrats, are slapping their own party's middle-class and poor constituents with plans for new regressive taxes. Davis tripled the vehicle license fee and helped inflate everyone's monthly energy bill on behalf of the wealthy, private shareholders of Southern California Edison stock. Bustamante promises to raise taxes on corporations and the rich—and to increase taxes on cigarettes from 87 cents to $2.27 per pack as well as boost alcohol taxes an additional 25 cents per gallon. He literally smiles—why?—when he says "everybody has to pay" for the state's mess. And pay we will. There is talk again of raising the state's gasoline and sales taxes, already among the highest in the nation.

They don't like to talk about it, but Democrat leaders foresaw this fiscal calamity and then pretended it didn't exist, just as George W. Bush did at the national level. Their ignorance had a purpose: to assure Davis's 2002 re-election. Only after they couldn't deny the mess any longer—and Davis had safely won re-election—did they begin to offer plans to face a state deficit larger than the gross national product of most countries. Even that so-called debt-reduction plan was a ruse. To once again mask the depth of the problem, the Democrats borrowed $11 billion more from Wall Street and then went back for another $1.8 billion to cover deficits in the state-employee pension fund. A clever Democratic strategist recently declared without a hint of insincerity that California's debt problems are history.

Most liberals are in denial about this record of Democratic negligence. During a Sept. 19 fund-raiser at the Santa Ana home of state Senator Joe Dunn, Bustamante—a delightful fellow in person —spoke primarily in platitudes. He said he's committed to "protecting the values of working-class people." Democratic audiences are apparently easy to please: they greeted the line with undeserved applause. The lieutenant governor moved on quickly to a subject sure to divert attention from his own shortcomings. He attacked Schwarzenegger's qualifications and alliances with establishment Republicans such as former Governor Pete Wilson and congressmen Christopher Cox, Dana Rohrabacher and David Dreier. The tactic fired up the faithful. At the end of the event, a Democratic activist turned to me and cheerfully said taxes should be higher—for everyone. So much for protecting working-class people.

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