Civil War in Reagan Country

The battle between conservatives and moderates could still cost Arnold the race

By Steve Appleford

This line is definitely not moving. It stretches down the block, a crowd of fans and the curious here to see Arnold Schwarzenegger, muscleman and movie star, and the season's great Teutonic hope for the California Republican Party. They haven't realized that virtually none of them will get past the doors at the actor's Santa Monica volunteer headquarters. And now they're getting restless, pressing against the storefront windows, knocking on the glass, watching anxiously for the candidate's grand entrance with a very special surprise guest.

For now, they'll have to be content with the bootleg Arnold T-shirts and buttons being sold on the sidewalk. Inside, a smaller gathering of media and loyal volunteers presses against a small stage surrounded by large photographs of Arnold the Republican fitness and education action hero: posing with an American flag, posing at the Special Olympics, posing beside a young student at a computer. Just like a real politician.

Right up front is Pati Miller, committed volunteer, a wife and mother living large along the canals in Venice, an ex-Democrat now "grown up" at 52. Her 10-year-old son plays football with Schwarzenegger's boy, and she's met the candidate from time to time. But that's not why she is here this morning, proselytizing even now to the women around her.

"We know he's not going to be bought off," she tells them, a "Join Arnold" button on her white Izod polo shirt. "He has his own money. You are his special interest."

The day before, she was in downtown L.A., watching as ex-candidate Bill Simon endorsed Schwarzenegger. Miller is a believer, even if her assurances that Arnold is financially independent - a true outsider! - ignores the $5,683,959 in contributions he's collected for the campaign as of September 29 (besides putting in $6 million of his own money). At least the $2 million he's spending every week on advertising seems to be paying off.

The newest polling finds the actor on the rise, particularly since his single debate appearance on September 24, seemingly on the road to returning the statehouse to Republican control. Which is where it had been for nearly two decades under governors George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson, before things came unglued within the party over taxes, abortion, and Clinton. Even now, the race to recall and replace Democratic Gov. Gray Davis once again reveals a Republican Party split and embittered over ideological lines.

So this morning's event is an important one, as Schwarzenegger finally marches to the podium, joined by Congressman Darrell Issa, who had personally bankrolled the statewide petition drive to recall Davis. He had also hoped to replace him. Now, Issa is a supporting player on Arnold's stage. "Darrell has been a great man," Schwarzenegger says. "He has been a uniter and, at the same time, a fantastic friend who is going to be by my side all the way to October 7." And soon they are gone, exiting to the screeching pop metal of Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It."

Standing beside the stage is Ron Nehring, president of the California Republican County Chairmen's Association, which has just announced its endorsement of Schwarzenegger. It is the group's first-ever endorsement. "We want to have a decisive victory in the governor's election because we have to send a signal to the legislature that it's not going to be business as usual in California anymore," Nehring says. "A united Republican Party stands the greatest chance of achieving that decisive victory."

This was a not-very-subtle hint that State Sen. Tom McClintock should do the same: stand firm with the Terminator. But the Thousand Oaks Republican has promised not to quit the race, committed to stand for the once-dominant conservative wing of his party. His mantra: Cut taxes, and then cut them again. Both major parties are forever wounded by internal strife and self-destructive feuds. Cruz vs. Gray, McClintock vs. Schwarzenegger, with little love or contact between them. But Democrats have at least been winning and dominating elections since the Clinton '90s. If Arnold or any other Republican succeeds in the recall, it will reverse an anti-Republican trend that just a few months ago looked impenetrable.

California was once home to a Republican dynasty - two terms with Deukmejian, the same with Wilson - but the GOP now holds not a single major statewide office, unless you count one seat on the state board of equalization. Meaning there is no one in power to greet President Bush at the airport. Reagan Country surrendered. Republican money remains plentiful in the home state of Reagan and Nixon, and George Bush is a frequent visitor, stepping off Air Force One just long enough to pick up the check at another million-dollar fundraising dinner. But the leadership needed to turn those resources into votes for exalted state office somehow vanished, leaving a party hopelessly addled and confused, at war with itself.

They curse Davis for spending $10 million on negative ads against Richard Riordan during the GOP primary last year, leading to the nomination of Simon, a far weaker opponent. It was an underhanded and effective move, but if the Republican faithful are so easily duped into embracing the wrong candidate, it suggests deeper issues than can be explained by Davis alone. California Republicans are now little more than the loyal opposition, piously committed to the conservative plan, the dependable gadfly to the Democratic leadership. Unless Arnold pulls off a Hollywood miracle.

Things began to go wrong for California Republicans in the early '90s, when conservatives revolted against tax increases supported by then-Gov. Wilson, who once referred to the troublesome right wing of his party as "Neanderthals." McClintock and other conservatives still talk of the episode as a rallying point, drawing little distinction between the crimes of Wilson and Davis. That break also happened to coincide with the popular presidency of Bill Clinton and a shift in the state electorate, which now has 44 percent of voters registered as Democrats (versus 36 percent for Republicans).

"The Republicans have only themselves to blame," says former State Sen. Cathie Wright, a Republican whose old 19th District seat is now held by McClintock. "Hard-core conservatives want it all or nothing, and they got nothing."

It is the "wingers" vs. the "squishers," as they call one another, and not always with affection. The result has been the nomination of doomed right-wing candidates like Simon.

The recall of Gov. Davis was to be their doomsday device, a short-term solution to the insoluble problem that could either reverse a decade of humiliation or send the party deep into irrelevance. To Democrats, it was just another right-wing conspiracy, like Bush v. Gore or the impeachment of Bill Clinton. But the anti-Davis outrage, at least at the street level, is genuine. It is there that the recall began, a Quixotic signature drive launched by Sacramento gadfly Ted Costa, before it was turned into a big-money operation by millionaire Congressman Issa. This is no conspiracy. It is a crusade.

"There is such a visceral hate - especially among the activists - for Gray Davis," says San Diego Republican consultant Scott Barnett. "He is not liked, and he is an awful governor." Barnett understands those feelings, but he was also alarmed enough by the dangerous precedent of a recall that he founded Republicans Against the Recall to warn party members away from a tempting but short-term solution to Davis.

"Part of the problem of our party has been that no one has looked beyond next week, to the implications to our party, our state, and our system," he says. Barnett also worries that a victory by Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante could lock up the governor's mansion for another eight years and stall the Bush administration's successful efforts to draw more Latinos into the California party.

For his part, Arnold has proven resilient. He's survived criticism for vague stands on issues and for not participating in debates, trotting his campaign from Leno to Stern to Oprah, as aides quoted "hasta la vista" as if it were policy statement.

Today, he is considered the front-runner, gathering endorsements, watching his poll numbers rise. Not all Republicans are enthralled. The party elite may have anointed the movie star, clinging to his hazy commitment to Republican values and raw name recognition. But the conservative core has other ideas.


At a weekend fundraising lunch in the suburban foothills of La Canada, Tom McClintock looks like a man convinced he is about to win an election. As he waits to step onto a small stage on the lawn of a large, private home, well-wishers shake his hand. "You got me hooked," one middle-aged man says, catching his breath. "I didn't know you until a few months ago." Nearby, a country & western quartet is playing "Okie from Muskogee" and "Make the World Go Away."

When he finally makes it to the stage, McClintock is defiant and direct, practically formal in a black suit and red tie. Behind him, a banner reads "Go Tom Go." As always, he compares his race to the unlikely victory of the race horse Seabiscuit. It's a crowd pleaser. "Clearly, this message is resonating with the electorate of California," he declares. "All of the momentum of this campaign has been on my side."

His refusal to quit has been recognized and championed by a growing chorus of national conservative groups. Just the day before, McClintock was in Colorado Springs, Colorado, enjoying a fundraising benefit by the likes of Christian conservative Gary Bauer. This afternoon, he has to settle for an endorsement message sent from ancient L.A. broadcaster George Putnam, a newsman and commentator from the Dragnet era. The candidate insists, "We will win this on election day."

After 17 years in office, McClintock now spends most of his time in Sacramento. He won his first assembly seat at age 26, and, despite a thin record of legislative accomplishments, his success with true believers taps into real frustration with the party's attempted drift toward the middle. Commentator and 1992 U.S. Senate candidate Bruce Herschensohn calls himself a fan of Schwarzenegger, but he's endorsed McClintock and is disappointed that more conservatives have not stood with him.

"I'm a Republican because I have particular principles," says Herschensohn, now a foreign policy professor at Pepperdine University. "If we abandon those principles in order to win, in a sense victory becomes a disguise for surrender."

Even Barnett of Republicans Against the Recall is drawn more toward a McClintock candidacy, though his group is endorsing only a "No" vote for the recall itself. He considers himself more moderate on social issues than McClintock but finds commonality on crucial fiscal matters. "We certainly know we will never, ever, ever, ever have any kind of tax increase if he's elected governor," he laughs. "And we will cut the budget significantly."

An arch-conservative libertarian might still have a chance in this state, but ex-Sen. Wright is convinced that McClintock would be no savior, even if elected. "McClintock has been a loner all his life," Wright says. "How is he going to work with a Democratic-controlled senate and assembly? He's made no friends.

"The leader of his own Republican caucus in the senate has endorsed against him. That should tell you something."

She remembers a meeting back in the late '90s, when she was still a state senator and McClintock was in the assembly. He was pushing a bill with all the political finesse of a commando, a hard-headed moment Wright says was typical. "He makes an appointment, and he comes into my office and basically tells me that I have no choice, that I have to vote for it," she says now. "I personally felt that it needed an amendment. He's not willing to work with the committee. So he doesn't get his bill."

This is not a party without leaders who might appeal to the mysterious middle. Consider L.A. Mayor Dick Riordan, who early on had polled higher than Davis and even Schwarzenegger. Or Peter Ueberroth, who emerged as a potential Republican star after leading the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles to profit and popularity. Time magazine made him "Man of the Year." And he had been talked up as a possible candidate for governor or U.S. Senator ever since, but he always declined. Until the recall.

Wall Street and others watched with interest, but his performance at the first debate in Walnut Creek was not spectacular, though it at least showed a businesslike seriousness, focused on what he described as the fiscal devastation of the state's $38 billion deficit. Asked his views on the death penalty, Ueberroth said he supported it, but then insisted that voters didn't care how he felt "about the death penalty. They want to talk about how to protect their jobs and businesses."

Maybe Ueberroth represents the old O.C.: a quietly conservative businessman, culturally moderate, deifying entrepreneurs, politely cursing taxes, but not the type who's about to march on abortion clinics. A competent presence, but not a great comfort to the far right. At a September 6 campaign event in Glendale, he announced he was on the verge of unleashing his TV campaign, which was set to remind voters of his success at the Olympics, as baseball commissioner, as a businessman.

He stood on a royal blue stage, looking like a man about to deliver a Fortune 500 annual report, speaking in the tone of an amiable econ professor. He was also a bearer of bad news, declaring that the outlook for education funds was "very dim. There isn't enough to go around." He simultaneously praised both Reagan and the late Democratic Mayor Tom Bradley, and he promised to do better at the next debate. Two days later, he was out. Moderate, go home.

Even if Schwarzenegger wins the election and immediately takes office later this month, it may open a door to a renewed state party. Or it could just become another very public battleground between Republican moderates and conservatives, dooming the party's prospects for re-election in 2006. But for some Republicans, that fight itself is more important than compromise.

They are not interested in voting strategically for Arnold, or for anyone else. "Don't surrender a philosophy," argues Herschensohn. "I'm old enough to remember the Barry Goldwater defeat [for president] in 1964. But we stuck to our guns. Everyone was saying that the Republicans are dead, certainly conservatism was dead. Well, in the next election, Nixon won, and then Reagan won. If you focus so much on your own time, on the calendar of today, you don't look to the future. And if you continually bend your principles to win, the victory isn't worth having."

Los Angeles CityBeat, Oct. 10, 2003

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