The Republican primary for governor of California (at this writing the results of the March 5 election are not known) has turned into a battle for the heart of the California GOP. California Republicans must choose which of the two candidates ? who are politically worlds apart ? will have the chance to face off against current governor Gray Davis.
Richard Riordan is a Republican of the Michael Bloomberg [New York City mayor] ilk: socially liberal and fiscally conservative. Mr. Riordan, the former mayor of Los Angeles, supports abortion rights, gun control, and gay rights, and has admitted donating thousands of dollars to Democrats in the past. His opponent is Bill Simon Jr., your run-of-the-mill California Republican: wealthy, conservative and desperate to wrest control of the state House from the moderate Democrat who presently occupies it.
President Bush, undoubtedly drooling over the prospect of a Republican governing a state with 54 electoral votes, has come out in support of Mr. Riordan, albeit subtly. The New York Times quoted Mr. Riordan as saying, ?The White House is trying to keep their fingerprints off the campaign because the president?s supposed to be nonpartisan in the primary.? But our conservative president clearly seems to think the best hope for a Republican victory in California lies not with a politician who shares his views, but rather with a political moderate.
Can we chalk this up as just another oddity from a politically odd state (its voters did, after all, send Sonny Bono to Congress)? I don?t think so. Anyone concerned with maintaining electoral choice in this country should recognize the significance of California?s gubernatorial race. It?s indicative of a more insidious trend sweeping across American politics: the rise of centrism.
In California you have George Bush, a conservative Republican, supporting Richard Riordan, a moderate Republican. Mr. Riordan espouses values Mr. Bush has publicly opposed when espoused by others. So why the support? According to the Times, Mr. Bush?s advisers feel a Republican governor would ?force the Democratic presidential candidate in 2004 to lavish resources on California,? thereby increasing the president?s chances of reelection. Mr. Bush has recognized that a moderate Republican is the only Republican with a chance of winning in California, so he checked his ?deep-seated? values and principles at the door to support Mr. Riordan.
Is Mr. Bush alone in sacrificing his beliefs for victory at the polls? Hardly. The trend is just as appalling within the Democratic Party, most egregiously regarding the death penalty.
Researchers at Columbia University released a landmark study in 2000, aptly titled ?A Broken System,? which found that an astonishing 68 percent of death penalty sentences imposed and reviewed from 1973-1995 were reversed ?due to serious errors,? among them incompetent lawyers, corrupt prosecutors and police, and biased jurors (the report is online at www.law.columbia.edu/instructionalservices/liebman/).
A few weeks ago, Part II of the study was released (www.law.columbia.edu/brokensystem2/index2.html). It found that ?the conditions evidently pressuring counties and states to overuse the death penalty and thus increase the risk of unreliability and error include race, politics and poorly performing law enforcement systems.?
In spite of the body of overwhelming evidence that the death penalty is ineffective as well as class-, race- and geography-biased, Democrats ? the putative authority on issues relating to socioeconomic status and race ? still overwhelmingly support it. The simplest explanation is because most Democrats actually support the death penalty, but that gives them far too much credit. The likelier answer is because it is politically expedient to maintain a moderate stance and support the death penalty; otherwise, a politician ? particularly a Democrat ? runs the risk of being branded ?soft? on crime. Whether a politician actually supports the death penalty is, essentially, irrelevant.
The problem isn?t with centrism per se. The problem is the belief that only moderates are electionworthy. As a result, liberals and conservatives alike end up supporting people and policies contrary to their own beliefs. If a politician truly is moderate (and Mr. Riordan probably is), then that?s fine. But to see George Bush supporting Mr. Riordan or Democrats supporting the death penalty has little to do with principles. It?s politics as usual, and that is the problem.
As much as politics these days is dominated by discussions of ?choice,? it?s a shame more people aren?t pro-choice when it comes to determining who?s on the ballot in the first place. It?s for this reason that I find myself in the rather awkward position of rooting for Mr. Simon in California. Not so much because of my own political beliefs, but because I believe Californians deserve a choice ? a real choice ? when they go to the polls in November, the kind of choice two moderates could never provide.
Chris McCall ([email protected]) is a junior majoring in German and political science.