For Pete’s Sake: Tough Times In California Will Call For A Tougher Governor

Thursday, August 22, 2019
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This column begins with birthday felicitations for my former boss, Pete Wilson, who turns 86 later this week.

Wilson, for me, engenders equal parts admiration and fascination—not to mention gratitude, as the opportunity to write speeches for the man (Wilson served as California’s 36th governor from 1991 to 1999) is what brought me to the Golden State in the first place.

The admiration part? Arriving as I did in early 1994, I had a front-row seat to Wilson’s successful re-election effort (at one point trailing former state treasurer Kathleen Brown in the polls, Wilson ended up on the winning side of a 15-point landslide). Watching that campaign, with its finger on the pulse of the electorate and its precise knowledge of where votes could be harvested in each of the state’s 58 counties (it helped that Wilson had previously run one November campaign for governor and two for the US Senate) was to see political craftmanship at its best.

That respect carried over into Wilson’s second term, during which I was his chief speechwriter. Two challenges soon became obvious: the governor slept little, which made for a lot of late-hour editing and rewriting of speeches and loitering around fax machines (this was pre-internet, folks); and possessing as Wilson does an English literature degree from Yale and a vast vocabulary, his writing underling had to learn the fine art of negotiation—for example, convincing the boss that “wastrel” maybe wasn’t the most potent of political zingers.

Where Wilson fascinates: how history maybe detours if his failed presidential run turns out differently than planned.

Wilson was a late entrant and early drop-out from the 1996 Republican field (next week marks the 24th anniversary of his presidential kickoff event in New York City). Had he managed to outlast Bob Dole, Republicans for the first time would have had a pro-choice nominee (this became an issue at the 1996 Republican National Convention, when Wilson led a failed effort to revise the abortion plank of the GOP’s platform). And maybe, a dozen years before Sarah Palin, Republicans also would have gotten the party’s first female running mate (former New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman, in the summer of 1996 a hot political commodity, would have been a logical choice).

And if you like the concept of historical “sliding doors,” we can play along: a Pete Wilson presidency means the nation is spared the Clinton impeachment; maybe Al Gore is still the Democratic presidential nominee in 2000, but it’s a tougher uphill climb against an incumbent president presiding over an economy still a year way from a brief recession.

Playing along further: George W. Bush would have to wait until at least 2004 to seek the presidency. In the current pattern of two-term presidencies, a Democrat wins the White House in 2004, followed by a Republican in 2012. Does Donald Trump ever become a political force of nature?

Wilson’s brief presidential run serves as a cautionary tale for incumbent California governors with “Potomac Fever” (Jerry Brown tried it twice, in 1976 and 1980, as did Ronald Reagan in 1968 before his successful 1980 run). But it’s his two terms in Sacramento that likewise are an important reminder: where a California governor starts isn’t necessarily where he ends.

In January 1991, Pete Wilson arrived at California’s State Capitol with a “preventive agenda” in his possession. Wilson’s vision: invest generously in prenatal care, early mental-health counseling, and other child-development services designed to help young Californians grow up healthier and free of such traps as gang violence and teen pregnancy.

Among the specifics: a $20-million “Healthy Start” program designed to give local school districts funding to integrate county-provided health and social services into elementary schools; $10 million in matching funds for mental-health counseling in elementary schools; $50 million to expand the federal Head Start program to provide preschool services to every four-year-old in a low-income household; $53 million for a public-private program to enable low-income women to purchase insurance for prenatal and maternity services; $25 million to treat women for drug-abuse problems.

But unlike present-day Sacramento, budget funds were in short supply 1991 and California was experiencing (at the time) the worst recession since the Great Depression. What ensued in Wilson’s first term were battles over how to balance the state budget through spending cuts and temporary tax increases (in 1991, California was looking at a $14.3 billion hole in a $43 billion budget).

California’s grim economy set the tone for other grim battles during Wilson’s first term—arguments and ballot-initiative brawls over tougher crime laws, welfare reform, the role of affirmative action and racial quotas in public university admissions and, of course, illegal immigration.

(Speaking of Wilson and immigration and Proposition 187, it’s a complicated topic deserving of a separate column-length discussion. But for now, I’ll leave you with this smart analysis courtesy of the National Review)

Wilson would go on to have a less contentious second term, thanks in no small part to a bust-turned-boom economy (during the 1990s, California went from last to first in the nation in job creation). Tax increases gave way to tax cuts; a second “children’s agenda,” as it were, took place in the form of a major health initiative and school class-size reduction.

It’s a tale worth remembering for California’s current governor, Gavin Newsom. He didn’t inherit an economic downturn, as did Wilson, but history may one day show that he had the unfortunate timing of entering office at the end of the longest economic expansion in the nation’s history.

The warning signs for California: a once-hot housing marketing now characterized by state analysts as “weak”; a GDP that grew at annual pace of 2.7% in the first quarter of 2019, well below the national average of 3.1% (California growth averaged 4% annually from 2013 to 2017); the ramification of a trans-Pacific trade war—for example, China announcing that it’s suspending the purchase of US farm products—which hits California in the proverbial breadbasket.

How ironic it would be if Newsom, who at times has taken cheap shots at Pete Wilson’s expense, should one day find himself in the same economic quandary. Would he be as skilled in forcing the state legislature to make tough decisions? Will his presidential ambitions likewise interfere with his plans for California?

Happy birthday, Governor Wilson.

For Pete’s sake, if tougher times are on the way, let’s hope the current governor proves to be as tough as you were.