The Best Conservative Governor in America

The September 2, 2002 of National Review carried a cover story that tellingly revealed the utter decrepitude of today’s mainstream conservative movement.

Entitled “The Best Governor in America,” the piece highlighted Colorado’s Bill Owens, a relatively obscure first-term governor from a small Rocky Mountain state, whom it portrayed as a future leader of America’s Republican Party and perhaps even the possible heir to the legendary Ronald Reagan. Considering NR’s status as flagship publication of American conservatives, such a description carries considerable weight.

Now America does not lack for prominent Republican governors. During most of the years since the 1994 Republican landslide, nearly all of America’s largest states have been governed by Republicans, with many conservatives frequently suggesting that these state leaders were better paragons of conservative principles than their often unpopular and compromised federal counterparts in the leadership of the U.S. House and Senate. Even today, seven of America’s most populous nine states have Republicans at the helm, with the only exceptions being solidly Democratic California and—since its 2001 off-year election—New Jersey.

Yet faced with the actual records of such prominent national governors as George Pataki of New York or Presidential brother Jeb Bush of Florida, NR instead selected the almost unknown Bill Owens as the best, or perhaps somewhat more accurately, the least bad of the lot. Familiarity with the actual policies of visible, big state governors had probably bred a considerable amount of contempt, and NR perhaps found it far easier to invest its ideological hopes in a political figure about whom few knew very much.


Such an investment carries obvious risks. Less than thirty days after receiving NR’s cover
accolades, Gov. Owens used that invested credibility to fiercely denounce Amendment 31, our “English” initiative on this year’s Colorado ballot aimed at replacing failed bilingual programs with intensive English classes for immigrant students.

Over the past six years, the national movement for English in the schools has arguably constituted one of the very few clear and widely acknowledged successes of the American conservative agenda. Thus, Owens’ opposition to its extension into Colorado might seem quite curious, especially since the measure had for a year consistently led by a very wide margins in most local media polls. Owens had even reportedly told several National Review
editors just weeks earlier that he was likely to become one of the first elected Republicans in America principled enough to endorse such a ballot measure, perhaps contributing to his glowing portrait in NR.

What changed? Certainly not the text of the initiative or the nature of bilingual programs,
which Gov. Owens and his staff had presumably been closely reviewing for the eighteen months since the measure was first filed and began to attract major headlines in the local media.

But it might or might not be pure coincidence that less than a week before the Colorado papers reported the Governor’s opposition to Amendment 31, those same papers had been filled with stories that one Pat Stryker, a billionaire heiress to her grandfather’s medical fortune, had made the largest political contribution in Colorado history, funding Colorado’s most intense paid advertising campaign, aimed at defeating Amendment 31.

Elected officials, particularly Republican ones, are notoriously willing to let their principles
take a hike rather than allow themselves to get on the wrong side of free-spending billionaires, however eccentric. Owens’ under-funded Democratic opponent, backed by the teachers’ unions, praised Owens’ new position on Amendment 31, but tellingly observed that it had seemingly required a three million dollar contribution to persuade him to suddenly see the light. I attach one of the relevant news stories.


Ironically enough, four years earlier, National Review had similarly given its cover over to a glowing portrait of California’s Dan Lungren, similarly portraying that gubernatorial candidate as the principled conservative who represented Ronald Reagan’s true heir and the future of America’s Republican Party. That year also, a different reclusive billionaire (who happened to be Lungren’s largest donor) made what was then the largest individual contribution to a California initiative campaign, funding a powerful advertising barrage against California’s Proposition 227.

Almost immediately, NR’s cover hero of 1998 denounced “English” in California, much like NR’s cover hero of 2002, starred in the No television commercials, and perhaps partly as a consequence lost his California gubernatorial race by the widest margin in forty years.

Historical events—and National Review cover heroes—seem to follow a consistent pattern.

Perhaps by similar coincidence, the generally conservative Rocky Mountain News, after many months of very friendly commentary toward Amendment 31, seemed to undergo a surprising transformation following the billionaire heiress’s check and the governor’s declaration: within a few days, an editorial had appeared denouncing the initiative.

In particularly strange fashion, that very same editorial opened with considerable praise for California’s Proposition 227, a measure virtually identical to its Colorado sibling, and the
editorial itself was eerily similar to those that appeared in nearly all of California’s major
newspapers opposing that earlier initiative. Again, history repeats itself.


Obviously, having Colorado’s incumbent Republican governor—the “best conservative governor in America”—denounce our “English” initiative significantly hurts its chances, as does the editorial opposition of the influential Rocky Mountain News.

But the impact of these factors is completely dwarfed by that of the current No on 31 television advertising campaign, deploying a five-week television budget roughly equivalent to $35-40 million in California’s much larger media market, or almost three times what Gov. Gray Davis will spend during that same period.

Smart consultants tailor their message to their audience, and persuading Colorado’s overwhelmingly white, generally conservative electorate to defend the glories of Spanish-only classes in the public schools is almost certainly the dog food that dogs just wouldn’t eat.

Instead, the No campaign has followed a far shrewder and more ruthless media strategy, spending its millions of dollars to warn Coloradans that Amendment 31 would require that immigrant students be put “into regular classrooms, creating chaos and disrupting learning.”

This powerful and emotionally gripping ad, clearly aimed at the white voters who will determine the election, has already attracted some critical notice. The AdWatch feature of the Rocky Mountain News, which I have attached below, describes the claims in the ad as “hyperbole” and says that “the hint at a swarming immigrant horde threatening the
educations of everyone else’s children is inexcusable.”

Inexcusable, but perhaps effective nonetheless.

One of the more bizarre aspects of the bilingual education debate is that by any objective analysis, these programs constitute a system of racially-segregated Spanish-only classes for Latino students, not all that different from those provided to most black students prior to Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

Now racially-segregated classes for Latino students might seem a little more in keeping with the views of conservative Mississippi political leaders from 1952 than with liberal American political leaders from 2002, but the world is a strange place indeed.

Furthermore, the embarrassing truth is that even today racial segregation is probably still far more popular among many white Americans, particularly conservatives, than either they or their elected representatives would ever publicly admit.

Segregated classrooms throughout America were abolished during the 1950s and 1960s only under tremendous pressure from unelected judges and other members of the political and media elite, who often acted in the face of enormous popular resistance. In liberal 1962 California, open housing laws were repealed by a landslide popular vote, and only survived when unelected judges struck down the result as unconstitutional. And most recently, almost 60% of California voters endorsed Proposition 187 in 1994, with at least some of that support probably based on the measure’s promise to improve California schools by immediately expelling some 300,000 Latino immigrant students from the classroom.

Given these realistic facts, only a fool would deny the potential potency of an alarmist message warning of the dangers of desegregating immigrant Latino students in Colorado schools. When such a message constitutes the core of the most intensive political advertising campaign in Colorado history, and has how been blessed by the state’s conservative Republican governor and the state’s main conservative newspaper, the impact on Colorado’s overwhelmingly white and conservative electorate will surely be very considerable. Under these circumstances, whether our measure wins or loses is a completely open question.


By contrast, our almost identical “English” initiative campaign in very liberal Massachusetts has encountered few of these same difficulties. Not only do the latest polls show us with a lead of almost 30 points—without a dollar of advertising spent on our side—but an endless series of man-in-the-street interviews or letters-to-the-editor have featured self-identified dyed-in-the-wool Democrats or staunchly progressive liberals proclaiming their support for Question 2.

This popular sentiment among Massachusetts Democrats has now received further confirmation from an unexpected source. The enormous visibility of our “English” initiative has now forced Massachusetts Senators Ted Kennedy and John Kerry, both the strongest of liberals, to take a public position on the matter, and given the pressure of bilingual advocacy groups, the result was the expected “dog bites man.” The senators released a joint letter opposing the measure, which mostly cited the exact same excuses as those used by Bill Owens, “the best conservative governor in America.”

But Kennedy and Kerry know their voters, and they apparently did their best to prevent their own liberal electorate from easily discovering their position on Question 2, choosing to release their statement after 5pm on a Friday afternoon, typically the timeslot reserved for leaking the worst of embarrassing news. As a consequence, the Boston Herald—which does not much like either Kennedy or Kerry—was able to run just a tiny item in its Saturday edition, which I include below, and the friendlier Boston Globe did the two liberal
Senators a significant favor by ignoring their letter entirely.

In fact, the Herald—a moderately conservative paper that strongly supports “Clean Elections” public funding for candidates and opposes repeal of state income taxes—has run numerous editorials and columns debunking exactly those “whoppers” and “bogeymen” that liberal Massachusetts Senators and conservative Colorado governors alike have cited as their excuses for opposing the very similar measures on the two state’s ballots. I include the latest Herald political column doing just that.  And as yet, no Massachusetts billionaire has written a mammoth political to help persuade elected officials and editorialists to change their minds.


Finally, a recent decision by California Gov. Gray Davis provides an interesting contrast with that of our esteemed conservative Bill Owens.

Unlike Owens, Davis tops no one’s list as a gubernatorial exemplar. Indeed, being a rather
disagreeable individual whose only passionate ideology is raising money and running for office, Davis’s mishandling of the state’s energy crisis and various budgetary problems have led a considerable number of both Democrats and Republicans to characterize him as possibly the worst Democratic governor in America, and according to public opinion polls, many California voters seem to concur.

Yet on almost exactly the same day that Gov. Owens of conservative Colorado announced his opposition to “English for the Children,” Gov. Davis of liberal California vetoed proposed legislation intended to somewhat dilute the impact of California’s own Proposition 227. His veto message suggested that the bill would create “separate expectations for English learners”—resegregation under another name—and was therefore “inconsistent with current state policies.” For the aptly-named Gray Davis, this bureaucratese constitutes the absolute height of ringing emotional rhetoric.

Thus, on the enormously important national issue of whether millions of young immigrant children throughout America should be taught how to read and write and speak English in school or kept for years in a racially-segregated classes featuring Spanish-only instruction, it now appears that America’s worst Democratic governor is better than America’s best Republican governor. Gray Davis may have earned my vote this November as a consequence.

In an example of impressive political timing, the conservative Washington Times ran a front-page story entitled “GOP Not Supporting English Measures,” which I am attaching below, just 24 hours before the “best conservative governor in America” proved how correct the headline had been.

Such is the current state of the national party I so hopefully joined twenty years ago in the political wake of Ronald Reagan.

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