|Office of the Chancellor / Public Affairs||
Wednesday, June 9, 2004
Sacramento Bee 6-9-04
Peter Schrag: Anagram of the year: Could Arnold play Ronald?
Among the first things Ronald Reagan did when he became governor of California in 1967 was to raise taxes. And not just one tax, but nearly all taxes: sales taxes, personal income taxes, bank, insurance and corporation taxes, as well as taxes on liquor and cigarettes. All told, those increases - ultimately totaling about $1 billion - were the largest ever proposed by any governor in U.S. history.
A few months later - just six years before Roe vs. Wade - Reagan signed the California Therapeutic Abortion Act, at the time among the most liberal abortion laws in the country.
Reagan seemed to be uncertain on the abortion issue; he'd never thought about it much and had no views on it. Although the bill was sponsored by Anthony Beilenson, a liberal Southern California Democrat, Reagan had made promises to conservatives who believed, as Reagan biographer Lou Cannon put it, that government should stay out of the "boardroom and the bedroom." Polls, moreover, showed that more than 70 percent of Californians, and nearly 59 percent of Catholics, supported liberalization of the abortion laws.
As the nation marks the death of the man sometimes described as the father of modern conservatism, it's not only Reagan's pragmatism that ought to be recalled, but also the fact that our seemingly intractable contemporary political shibboleths weren't always carved in stone.
Reagan later said he regretted signing the California abortion law, which resulted in a spike in abortions so large that it surprised even its author. But Cannon also points out that while Reagan supported an anti-abortion constitutional amendment when he was getting ready to run for president, he was never a true believer. As president, he addressed pro-life rallies in Washington, but always by phone, because he didn't want to be photographed with their leaders. Cannon writes that "he stayed away from \[the issue\] as much as he could."
There are reminders here for all sorts of people - for Republicans such as California's departing state senator, Jim Brulte, who, as the leader of the GOP caucus, declared two years ago that any support for any tax increase in his party should bring an automatic political death sentence.
Or for the troglodytes of the Club for Growth who want to dump any Republican - such as Sens. Arlen Specter or Olympia Snowe - showing the least taint of moderation.
Or for Grover Norquist, who runs Americans for Tax Reform in Washington and who, like Brulte, vows to destroy any governor who squints at a tax increase.
As Reagan's self-proclaimed conservative heirs honor his memory, they ought to recall that conservatism once had a far broader meaning: about fiscal responsibility, personal liberty and due process, about public and personal civility and fair dealing.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn't subscribe to the GOP's latter-day cultural orthodoxy. He's a moderate - maybe even a liberal - on issues such as abortion and gay rights. Probably he couldn't have won a California Republican primary.
But for all his popularity and political skills, he's still not ready to violate the no-new-tax theology of latter-day Republican gospel, which, after the demise of the Soviet Union, is one of the few things, if not the only thing, that now defines Republicanism.
Schwarzenegger has led a lot of people to believe that it's all part of his one-problem-at-a-time agenda, and thus of a larger strategy to re-establish confidence in the state's leadership, including, as one Sacramento observer said, restoring "the self-esteem of the Legislature." He's also shown unexpected flexibility - and a great deal more willingness to engage legislators than his Democratic predecessor.
But on fiscal issues, the governor seems to be as intimidated by the no-tax ideology as most other moderate politicians and thus as prone to defer real fixes for the state's structural budget deficits - to fudge and borrow - as any of his recent predecessors.
The governor could have a real opportunity to re-energize his self-marginalized party and, more important, help revive its all-but-dead moderate wing. But he can do it only if he's willing to play the celebrity politics game for higher stakes than he has so far and risk some of the high public opinion ratings that as yet are only partly deserved.
Long before he was elected governor, Reagan had a clearly defined vision and a sunny optimism about his country and about what a good society should entail. When The Bee's columnist Daniel Weintraub recently asked Schwarzenegger what his vision was, he said, in effect, wait until next year. Stick around, he's told others, until the end of the show; he's got a great script.
Leadership entails more. Principles often have to be compromised and
visions reduced in the face of reality. But Reagan's vision was persuasive
enough that it could survive despite his pragmatism and compromises. And
he made lots of them. But then, he served in an era when politics was
the pursuit of a better society, not holy war. It'll be tough, but with
enough courage, Schwarzenegger could nudge us back in that direction.
These news clips are provided by the Public Affairs Department of The California State University. They are intended for the internal use of The California State University system and should not be redistributed. Questions and submissions may be sent to email@example.com.