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Bill Simon carrying on Reagan legacy

By W. James Antle III
web posted March 4, 2002

On March 5, California Republicans will choose their nominee for governor. Supporters of all three candidates profess to be united in their determination to oust Democratic incumbent Gray Davis. But will they make a clean break by nominating businessman Bill Simon, or will they instead nominate former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan, who agrees with Davis on many issues?

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, left, campaigns for Bill Simon, right, during a campaign stop in downtown San Diego on February 25
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, left, campaigns for Bill Simon, right, during a campaign stop in downtown San Diego on February 25

Bill Simon is the son of the late former Treasury Secretary William E. Simon. A success in the private sector, Simon also worked as a federal prosecutor under Rudolph Giuliani in the Reagan Justice Department. Before deciding to run himself, Riordan helped persuade Simon to get in the race. He stayed in to defend the conservative values and ideas that animate what is best about the Republican Party.

Riordan has often behaved as if he was running against Davis for the Democratic nomination. He touts his support for welfare payments to illegal immigrants, unrestricted abortion, racial preferences and gun control. He opposes educational choice, has flip-flopped on the death penalty and is open to Internet taxation and civil unions. He has donated $1 million to Democratic candidates, supporting such Democrats over the years as Dianne Feinstein, Maxine Waters and Davis himself. He has even suggested to the California Political Review that perhaps Californians aren't paying enough taxes.

This is the man who should lead the Republican Party in the home state of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan?

Simon, on the other hand, is everything Riordan isn't. He would cut taxes and cap the capital gains tax rate at 5 percent. He would toughen academic standards in California's schools while promoting privatization and decentralization. He supports gun rights and is pro-life. Basically, he is the Republican in the race.

This is beginning to resonate with likely GOP primary voters. Starting the race more than 30 points behind Riordan, Simon now leads Riordan 37 percent to 31 percent in the latest Field poll. The Los Angeles Times found them tied with 31 percent of the vote each. Simon's list of endorsements on his web site reads like a who's who of conservative luminaries: William F. Buckley, Jr., Jack Kemp, Milton Friedman, R. Emmett Tyrell, Jeanne Kirkpatrick and Paul Weyrich, among others. He has the support of three past state GOP chairmen, the Republican Liberty Caucus, California College Republicans and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers' Association. And of course, he has Giuliani's backing.

Simon is even closing in on Davis in the most recent polls as Riordan's numbers deflate. This removes the most powerful argument for Riordan's candidacy: electability. Simon and the third candidate in the race, Secretary of State Bill Jones, fare nearly as well in head-to-head match ups with the governor as Riordan.

But wasn't the lesson of Dan Lungren's 1998 defeat that conservatives cannot win in California anymore? That the GOP must nominate a candidate to the left of Pete Wilson instead of a Reagan-Deukmejian Republican?

Let us look at the facts. Lungren and former state treasurer Matt Fong both lost their most recent statewide bids, but were able to win statewide as conservatives during the 1990s. Jones is still in statewide office now. Wilson was a moderate, but he pulled off his gubernatorial bids by lurching to the right on quotas in 1990 and immigration in 1994. One of the strongest Republican candidates for the US Senate from California in the last decade was actually conservative commentator Bruce Herschenson. Herschenson won 43 percent of the vote to 48 percent for Barbara Boxer in 1992 (and he may well have won the if it weren't for bad press stemming from an alleged visit to a strip club). Moderate John Seymour, who chaired Wilson's 1990 gubernatorial campaign and thus was handpicked by him to fill his unexpired Senate term, lost to Dianne Feinstein by 55 percent to 38 percent.
Tom Campbell was so outraged that he lost the GOP primary to Herschenson that the moderate congressman founded the Republican Majority Council to oppose the pernicious influence of the right within the party. When he finally got his chance to carry the GOP banner in the Senate race against Feinstein in 2000, he lost - by 55 percent to 38 percent. So much for the centrist advantage.

The present climate in California presents an opportunity to defend less government and lower taxes. Simon, not Riordan, is the candidate to seize it. Those who believe Davis' intervention in the GOP primary is evidence that he would rather run against the conservative political neophyte than the former LA mayor should consider California's political history. The last sitting Democratic governor to attempt that was Pat Brown, who wanted to see moderate George Christopher defeated by his conservative primary opponent. The year was 1966 and that conservative first-time office-seeker was Reagan, who even the editors of The New York Times recently conceded, "did rather well that November. And a few Novembers after that."

Riordan wants to move the Republican Party in California and nationally to the left. This is why New Republic editor Peter Beinart so effusively praised him in a recent article. Simon will keep the party true to its Reaganite principles, but he has a heady challenge ahead of him should he prevail in the primary. Promising conservatives have demonstrated their ability to defeat more established moderates in Republican primaries, but there remain questions about their ability to win general elections (consider the examples that range from Jeffrey Bell to Al Salvi to Bret Schundler).

This is not to suggest that Simon will be a rerun of Schundler, a conservative with even more impressive policy wonk credentials and an actual track record in elective office. Schundler was never polling competitively against the Democrats at this stage in the election cycle as Simon now is. Nor was Jim McGreevey in the same position as Gray Davis - it is likely he would have dispatched Bob Franks or Donald DiFrancesco as well, just as he very nearly defeated compulsively moderate Christine Todd Whitman in 1997. The economy, budget and energy crisis put Davis at risk when faced with any credible opponent.

Bill Simon has earned the right to be entrusted with the Reagan legacy. If the majority of GOP primary voters agree with this assessment, it will be his obligation to demonstrate that this legacy can yield political victories in this generation.

W. James Antle III is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right.

Other related articles: (open in a new window)

  • Riordanism and the Republican future by W. James Antle III (February 11, 2002)
    As more and more Republicans take their cue from former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and less from Ronald Reagan, W. James Antle III worries for the future of the party
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