Californians go to the polls Tuesday to select two candidates for governor. Democratic infighting has dominated the news coverage, but the real story is that of Attorney General Dan Lungren, who has the Republican field to himself. With millions of campaign dollars at his disposal, and nearly 20 years as an elected official, he is given better than even odds of prevailing in November. So why are so many California Republicans despairing over his candidacy?
The problem, according to many Republicans, is that Mr. Lungren is convinced the best way to get elected governor is not to sound too much like a conservative Republican. They point out that in the past two weeks he has announced his opposition to Proposition 227, a popular state initiative that would dismantle bilingual education, and jumped on the gravy train of attorneys general suing Microsoft. Even more troubling is that last June Mr. Lungren joined the biggest gravy train of all: the multistate lawsuit against tobacco companies.
This isn’t the behavior state Republicans expected from a staunch Reaganite. During his 10 years in the House, and 71/2 years as attorney general, he has usually been an ally of conservatives. But having been denied an appointment as state treasurer in 1988 because California Democrats thought him too conservative, and having been told he almost lost his 1990 attorney general’s race because he was insufficiently squishy, Mr. Lungren has in recent years tried to burnish his moderate credentials. This, the thinking goes, will help him with women, as well as with the 12% of state voters who are Hispanic (up from 7% in 1992). But this effort has occasionally made him look less like Ronald Reagan and more like Bill Clinton.
Consider the mealy-mouthed statement Mr. Lungren made on May 18 when announcing he was joining the suit against Microsoft. “I won’t pretend this case is a slam dunk. We’re dealing with very complex issues and an industry that is, itself, complex. We arrived at the decision to join the states’ lawsuit only after considerable deliberation.” Mr. Lungren’s Microsoft offensive was even more surprising considering he has no discernible record as a trustbuster, that 14 of the 19 other attorneys general who joined the suit are Democrats, and that Mr. Lungren already enjoys good relations with Silicon Valley thanks to his work on securities-litigation reform, immigration and charter schools. But with California’s high-tech crowd leading the anti-Gates effort, Mr. Lungren apparently aimed to please it in an election year.
Mr. Lungren’s joust with Microsoft is nothing compared with his campaign against Big Tobacco. A nonsmoker, and no friend of Philip Morris while in the House, he initially refused to join other states suing the tobacco companies. His public explanation was that a state product-liability law prevented him from taking action. But privately, he expressed concerns about the precedent a tobacco lawsuit would set, fearing it could open up manufacturers of alcohol and fatty foods to similar litigation. In September 1996, when he was being battered by Democrats for not joining the antitobacco brigades, he told the Los Angeles Times he wasn’t going to succumb to political pressure: “We’ve looked at this, and we’ll continue to look at this, but I don’t play political games with this issue and I never have.”
But Mr. Lungren’s backbone cracked when the state Legislature indicated it would amend the product-liability law to allow tobacco lawsuits. Having once been a voice of moderation in a sea of hysteria, Mr. Lungren started to sound like his onetime House colleague Henry Waxman (D., Calif.), accusing the tobacco companies of everything but the assassination of President Kennedy. Last June, Mr. Lungren announced that California would seek from the tobacco companies a whopping $1.3 billion in reimbursements for health-care costs and another $500 million for unfair business practices. To wage this war, he’s secured an annual appropriation of $13.9 million and employed 18 full-time lawyers.
Echoes of Mr. Lungren’s tobacco crusade were seen in his move a few years ago to block a joint venture between Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp. and Sharp HealthCare, a nonprofit hospital organization based in San Diego. Mr. Lungren charged Sharp’s board of directors with “a serious breach of trust” for approving the joint venture, and threatened to file suit if the two companies followed through on their merger plans. The threat worked: In February 1997, the deal was called off after Sharp officials concluded they didn’t want to become ensnared in a costly, time-consuming legal battle with Mr. Lungren.
Such vigilance stands in contrast to Mr. Lungren’s history of reticence on a number of high-profile initiatives debated by state voters over the past few years. In 1993, as a Republican-oriented school-voucher initiative was being pummeled by teachers unions, he didn’t offer his endorsement until a week before election day, when the initiative was already doomed. Similarly, in 1994 Mr. Lungren didn’t endorse Proposition 187, a controversial immigration measure, until the day before the vote. Two years later he endorsed Proposition 209, which outlawed state-based racial preferences, but said little about it. And this year he has been practically mute about Proposition 226, a Republican-backed initiative that would require unions to seek each member’s approval before collecting money for political advocacy.
In fairness, there are many areas where Mr. Lungren has pleased the GOP faithful, from his tough-on-crime stance to his enthusiastic support for repealing the state’s car tax. But he’s also bought into the Beltway spin that Republicans would be more popular if only they were kinder and gentler. Thus he looks at polls showing Hispanics losing faith in Republicans and concludes he’d be better off not supporting Proposition 227–never mind that a majority of Hispanics support it. Or he talks about his antiabortion views in the context of his Catholicism, since polls indicate this will make him more palatable to pro-choice voters. Mr. Lungren, in short, doesn’t want to be labeled an extremist, while overlooking that there’s nothing “extreme” about the issues he’s running away from.
For all their discomfort, Republicans will still support Mr. Lungren in November, as there’s too much at stake–including the reapportionment of California’s 50-plus congressional districts–to allow a Democrat to become governor. But they’d also like Mr. Lungren to be a little more willing to tangle with Democrats, liberal advocacy groups and the media. After all, he won’t accomplish much as governor if he always shies away from a fight. Even he has expressed hope, in a recent interview with the Sacramento Bee, that voters will support the office-seeker who is grounded in principle, “rather than be attracted to a candidate who does everything by the polls . . . or candidates who have not shown that they have a strong philosophical base for their decisions.” Now Mr. Lungren must live up to his words.
Mr. Rees is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard in Washington.