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.

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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.

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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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Each election season in California, the biggest weapon in the Democratic arsenal is a negative punch: "Vote for us. At least, we're not those women-hating, gun-loving, environment-spoiling, homophobic nuts from the other party." Bustamante is still learning to handle this weapon; Davis has mastered it. But voters should for once resist the gimmick, temporarily set aside the urge to solve every social concern that isn't life-or-death—and admit that the most critical problem facing California is the government's unprecedented financial disasters.

If any of the candidates is a likely target for the usual Democratic fear-campaign strategy, it's McClintock. He's pro-gun, anti-choice, anti-gay rights and a proponent of environmental regulatory rollbacks. He hates union power, campaign-finance reform, judges who protect the rights of suspects and illegal immigration. He craves tort reform for big business and more nuclear power plants. If he won, Sacramento would be less involved in local affairs. He favors school vouchers and wants to make sure everyone utters the words "under God" when they recite the Pledge of Allegiance. He authored California's lethal-injection law for death-penalty convicts. He is Barry Goldwater, circa 1964.

Nevertheless, like Goldwater—who proved to be quite the statesman in his later years, going so far as to abandon his party's absurd anti-gay politics—there is not only hope for McClintock, but also a use. The New York native and UCLA graduate, whose working-class family moved to the San Fernando Valley in 1965 to find jobs, has two characteristics Californians urgently need in a leader: unyielding honesty and independence.

You should know that McClintock is the only politician in California with enough integrity to do all of the following without reservation or fear of retribution from his own party's less principled bosses:

1. He blasted the backroom deal that forced a multibillion-dollar ratepayer bailout of the state's Republican-dominated private utility monopolies.

2. He publicly chastised the disgraceful ethics of Chuck Quackenbush—at a time when the Republican insurance commissioner was still backed by Republican leaders.

3. He launched the fight against the regressive car-registration tax that hits the poor and working class hardest.

4. He has displayed 15 years of almost vicious political independence in attacking massive tax hikes and corporate giveaways no matter who proposed them—whether Republican governors Wilson and George Deukemejian or Democrat Davis. Consider his showdown with Wilson just after the governor's 1991 tax hike of $7.4 billion. McClintock objected, and the then-governor backed the defiant McClintock into a corner and angrily called him "fucking irrelevant." McClintock, however, refused to be intimidated.

"I place principle over party," McClintock recently told Orange County Register reporter Martin Wiskol. "The party is only as good as its devotion to their principles."

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It's no surprise that such a man scares members of his own party—and no wonder many Republican heavyweights want McClintock to quit the race in favor of Schwarzenegger, who sometimes claims he's pro-gay rights, pro-gun control, pro-choice, pro-environment and sympathetic to illegal immigrants. Schwarzenegger is a man in whom Republican leaders see themselves: his failure to remember the 1970s gangbangs and illegal drug use he once bragged about reveal a budding slickster on par with Bill Clinton, who likewise believed he could talk himself out of any indiscretion. And if it's true that you can know a man by the company he keeps, then what are we to make of a celebrity body builder who surrounds himself with Pete Wilson and his team of establishment Republican advisers who are likely already plotting new corporate subsidies?

Now you know why Republican leaders—who claim to share all of McClintock's policy positions—so quickly beat the drums for the more liberal Schwarzenegger: like the Democrats, they can't stand a man of conviction in their ranks. Perhaps believing his comment would harm McClintock rather that prove his bona fides, a miffed Republican insider said this to a reporter: "[McClintock's] very bright, but the number of people [in the GOP leadership] who do not like him is very high."

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When I tell friends I support McClintock, they invariably run down his catalog of conservative social stands. I tell them I'm not worried, that when McClintock says his "focus has always been on fiscal policy" and that social issues are "ancillary," we have good reason to believe him. To date, he has been a man of his word.

And then there's my own realpolitik: the Democrats firmly control both the state Assembly and Senate. A governor can only sign a bill into law after it has been approved by the legislature, a legislature that is, in this case, as Democratic as a meeting of the ACLU.

An upset McClintock victory on Oct. 7 could give us the following scenario: Democrats in the state Legislature won't get most of their Volvo spending programs and special-interest payouts. The Republican governor won't be able to enact any of his 1950s-era social initiatives. And because of McClintock's hard-wired stinginess, the rest of us—Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Greens and Libertarians—can finally see some financial sanity returned to Sacramento.

RSCOTTMOXLEY@OCWEEKLY.COM.

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