California conservatives and the choice they face

Posted: Aug 26, 2003 12:00 AM

Has conservatism become an unaffordable luxury in the California governor's race?

It depends -- I presume to judge through binoculars -- on two factors: 1) what you mean by "conservatism" and 2) how urgently you want a Republican governor.

California conservatives appear riven over Arnold Schwarzenegger (hereinafter plain Arnold, due to the tedium connected with typing a 14-letter surname).

"We have to stop this government from overtaxing, overspending and over-regulating," Arnold said the other day. Of course, that's a conservative message. But flip to the social issues -- abortion, gay rights and the like -- and Arnold, from the conservative standpoint, flubs it. He's on the same side, generally speaking, as Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins. A conservative Baptist pastor tells The New York Times: "I can't bring myself to vote for someone who is unabashedly pro-gay."

Even so, the influential and unquestionably conservative Lincoln Club of Orange County, Calif., put such reservations on the shelf the other day. It endorsed Arnold, mainly, it would appear, on account of his electability.

The prominent economic and social conservative Bill Simon reinforced this view shortly afterward by bowing out of the race. Simon's thesis: Too many major Republicans (himself, Arnold and two others) spoil the electoral broth, potentially clinching a victory for Democrat Cruz Bustamente. A poll released over the weekend showed Bustamente leading Arnold but the Republicans together handily outdistancing Bustamente.

It is not for outsiders presumptuously to advise locals on local matters. (That's for federal judges, I suppose.) But the conservative predicament in California resonates outside California and deserves at least passing consideration.

Social (i.e., pro-life, pro-family) and economic (i.e., pro-free market) conservatives fail to line up automatically these days. They profess different interests and convictions. Some of us have watched this thing come on for a long time. It disappoints but doesn't shock.

If you define "conservatism" as "skepticism of government's ability to solve any but basic problems," you may, but also may not, want government prescribing particular moral practices. Morality, you may assert, is a private matter, one from which government should stay away. This would mean, in practice, that the government should allow abortion and prohibit school prayer and that, additionally, it should affirm sexuality in all its forms.

If, on the other hand, you define "conservatism" in terms of its relationship to hierarchical and time-tested norms, many of those norms being religious in origin, you may posit a governmental duty to roll back particular wrongheaded government policies.

The policies in question have a common denominator: The U.S. Supreme Court has imposed them by judicial fiat. Roe vs. Wade comes to mind, also the school prayer decisions and, just this summer, Lawrence vs. Texas, in which the justices advised us that the Constitution protects sodomy.

Pure economic conservatives (a k a libertarians), focused as they are on getting and spending, tend to dismiss the social conservatives' non-economic frustrations. Which is too bad inasmuch as the concerns of both overlap at vital points.

I would mention two of those points. First, free societies don't flourish in conditions of moral anarchy where -- does this sound increasingly familiar? -- the individual judges right and wrong for himself. Didn't WorldCom's Bernie Ebbers, among many others, recently take this approach? Second, you have to wonder how anyone seriously committed to limited government can excuse the U.S. Supreme Court for regularly assuming the task of rewriting the moral code. Don't we, the people have any say in all this? Not, apparently, as the court sees it.

None of the foregoing speaks precisely to the question of how California conservatives should vote in the recall election. I would note only that pure "pragmatism" rarely gets anybody very far. You win and then what? An eventual glance in the mirror tells all. The face that stares back is that of Dr. Faustus.

And from the other side of the door comes unearthly scratching and snuffling. Some dark something has come to claim its end of a disastrous bargain.