Where political principles are dead weight

Posted: Sep 04, 2003 12:00 AM

"Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive," wrote Wordsworth on the Fall of the Bastille, "But to be young was very heaven."

So it was, long ago, when a young generation of conservatives rose up to declare they would rather go down to defeat with Barry Goldwater than win with Nelson Rockefeller. And lose we did.

But out of the fiery furnace came a movement. Sixteen years later, it would nominate Ronald Reagan, who would win a 44-state landslide, go to Washington as president and win the Cold War, the great cause of 1960s conservatism. Contrast that principled conservatism with the crass politics of the California recall.

It began as a populist crusade. Defying the White House and the state Republican establishment, grass-roots conservatives -- with the financial aid of Rep. Darryl Issa -- forced the recall election of Gov. Gray Davis.

But when they succeeded, Arnold Schwarzenegger, coming off the success of "Terminator III," declared for governor and vaulted into the lead. The stampede to endorse was on, with George Schulz, Pete Wilson, Rob Lowe and Warren Buffett being enthusiastically joined by conservatives David Dreier, Dana Rohrbacher and Chris Cox.

But by calling on Republicans to vote for Arnold, not the men of principle Bill Simon or Tom McClintock, who were the conservatives endorsing? A sybarite who backs abortion on demand, homosexual unions and gun control, and thought the impeachment of Clinton a GOP atrocity.

All that is irrelevant, say the pragmatic conservatives. We are endorsing Arnold because he can deal with a $38 billion deficit.

But how is Arnold qualified to deal with a fiscal crisis? In 2002, he campaigned for after-school programs that would add half a billion dollars to spending. Nor has Arnold ruled out tax increases to balance the budget. He opened his campaign by talking of bringing business back, so business could pay the taxes needed to create new state programs. Conclusion? California conservatives have rallied to Arnold for one reason: They think he is a winner, and they have put their principles on the shelf.

Now, there is no denying that the first objective of a political cause is the winning of power. Without power, even the best of causes cannot prevail. But without principles on which a man will stand or fall, without convictions, without ideas and ideals, without an agenda, the pursuit of power becomes naked ambition, and politics becomes but a question of us, not them, with no more moral content than the NFL. Politics then ceases to be a solemn duty of citizenship and becomes a spectator sport, a game, a diversion.

Men and women of convictions will inevitably turn their backs on such a politics, cease voting and secede from the system. That is what is happening in America.

Yet, the conservatives who endorsed Arnold over McClintock, a state senator who nearly won in the Democratic sweep of 2002, now face the risk that is always inherent in putting power before principle -- the risk of not getting paid after you have sold out.

If Arnold wins and goes on to govern as Pete Wilson II, how do they explain themselves? If Arnold does not win, how do they then explain why they supported a man whose views on social, moral and cultural issues are straight out of Hollywood Confidential?

The argument for pragmatism is that it works. But if pragmatism fails to deliver, then the pragmatist looks like the girl who turns tramp but fails to get paid because her millionaire customer turned out to be a phony and a fake. She is not only a tramp, but a stupid one.

As for the California Democrats, they are shameless. First, they decried the recall as an attempt to steal the governorship of California, even as the GOP tried to steal the presidency from Clinton and stole the White House from Al. Then, after seeing Arnold soar, Democrats decided they needed a fallback position, in case their spin did not work.

So they agreed to put Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante on the ballot, and clear the other Democrats off. The party position can now be stated thus:

"This recall is a rotten right-wing power grab. Stand by Gray! Don't let them steal the governorship! However, if you feel Gray should be thrown to the wolves, go ahead and toss him to the wolves. But be sure, then, to vote for Cruz -- so our gang can stay in power."

The California recall is a wonderful and instructive story. It shows politics at its principled best, and its pragmatic worst. In it, we see both the decency and determination of populist rebellion, and the unseemliness and squalor of the naked pursuit of power.