To win or not to win

Debra J. Saunders

7/15/2002 12:00:00 AM - Debra J. Saunders
Is it really in the GOP's interest for Bill Simon to be elected governor of California? Do the math. Last year's state budget was about $103 billion; there's a shortfall of some $24 billion, yet Sacramento is looking at spending $100 billion this fiscal year, after raising revenue -- read: taxes -- by $4.6 billion. The state Constitution prohibits deficit spending, but that hasn't stopped Gov. Gray Davis and Sacto pols from creative bookkeeping. In 2003, the governor will have to balance a budget that covers this year's excesses and next year's -- the legislative analyst anticipates a $10 billion shortfall. If the economy tanks, it could be worse. The most skilled politician will make enemies and anger voters as he proposes spending cuts and/or tax increases needed to create a real working budget. He also will have to work with a hostile Democratic Legislature. And Bill Simon is hardly the most skilled politician. This is one of those academic questions that students of politics love to throw around: Would it be better for the GOP if a Democrat is governor when state finances sink from desperate to disastrous? "If Gov. Davis is re-elected, he's going to have a terrible second term," noted Republican analyst Tony Quinn. And, "You can argue that giving the Democrats another four years of rope, they will really hang themselves." Quinn expects Davis' pay-to-play scandals to grow worse. Quinn noted that two terms of Democrats resulted in good runs for Republicans. Two terms of Pat Brown helped elect Ronald Reagan. Two terms of Brown's son Jerry, Quinn added, "'gave us 16 years of Republican governors," George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson. Bah, says Bob Stern, a registered Democrat and president of L.A.'s Center for Governmental Studies. "That's like saying that Bush shouldn't have been elected because the economy is going south." Stern noted that some Repubs so mused during the 2000 campaign, but they're glad Bush is in the White House today. Besides, the economy -- more than who is elected -- will determine what happens to the state budget. Meanwhile, the governor nominates judges and decides whether to sign or reject bills such as the Sacramento measure to limit greenhouse-gas emissions from cars. Good citizens should vote their principles. On the political front, GOP consultant and Team Simon player Sean Walsh says -- no surprise -- that the party gains if Simon wins. "If Republicans are ever going to fundamentally rebuild the party, they need someone at the top of the ticket to generate cash," Walsh said. And, "They need the institution of government to help them do that." All voters would benefit from a GOP guv because, he said, "Sacramento is a one-company town. The checks and balances just aren't there." No lie. There's only one Republican statewide officeholder, Secretary of State Bill Jones, and Repubs hold a pitiful number of seats in the Assembly and Senate. Besides, Walsh worked for Pete Wilson. "As angry as people got at Pete Wilson" -- who slashed spending and raised taxes in his first year as governor -- "they all gave him grudging respect that he did what he had to do." For their part, Stern and Quinn don't believe that the next governor has to be a master politician, as long as he makes good hires. "Either you have to be very smart, or have very good people around you, or be very lucky to be a successful leader," said Stern. "I don't think it takes a rocket scientist to be governor. And we haven't had a rocket scientist," he added. Too true. Still, party biggies might want to reassess whether they should work all out to put Simon in the big office if it detracts from down-ticket races. State Sen. Bruce McPherson is an attractive candidate for lieutenant governor. State Sen. Tom McClintock would make a great controller. As Quinn observed: "I don't see how the Republicans could ever come back if they lose everything this year. They'll become like Hawaii or Massachusetts and have to wait years and years." Oh joy. Years and years of future Gray Davises, with their hands out. From the Davis camp, spokesman Roger Salazar wasn't all too interested in giving the GOP solid advice. Still, he was happy to note that the party has a big problem: namely, the people it nominates. "If you keep ignoring your moderate Republicans, and lessening your chance to have any participation in the state process, you become more and more marginalized. "I'm not saying that's a bad thing," said the Democratic Salazar. "It works for me."