There is a story about three governors that should be told because it highlights the choices we face as a party in who we nominate to carry our banner in 2012.
The September 2007 California Republican Party convention provided a moment of the clearest possible contrasts in how we can define our party.
On Friday evening of the convention the delegates heard from three governors at one dinner, and it turned out to be the most unusual political dinners in the recent history of the state Republican Party.
Shortly before the dinner, walking with Governor Schwarzenegger down from a private suite in the Renaissance Esmeralda hotel, a member of his staff asked if I had been briefed on what the Governor was planning to say that night. I indicated I had not been. Surprised, the staffer went on to explain that the Governor would have some “tough things to say about the party.” This struck me as unusual, since conventions are an opportunity to thank volunteers and activists for their hard work, and inspire them going forward.
Governor Schwarzenegger had a different idea.
Despite an unprecedented effort by the California Republican Party in 2006 to support his re-election, including taking on millions of dollars in debt, Governor Schwarzenegger gave a dinner speech in which he repeatedly blasted the party faithful for being too conservative.
Overlooking his own victory and that of new Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner less than a year earlier, Schwarzenegger claimed the Republican Party, which had lost control of Congress nationally in the same year, was “dying at the box office.” That line was repeated in every major newspaper throughout the state the next day, and completely overshadowed a speech Senator John McCain would deliver later that weekend.
The press had a field day — here was a Republican governor confirming what liberals in the media say all the time: that the party is too conservative, and has to become more similar to Democrats in order to win.
The Schwarzenegger speech was a shot taken at a party when it was down, and of questionable appropriateness. The folks who attend political conventions are activists, donors and volunteers who are usually drawn to the party not out of a desire to gain access to politicians, but out of conviction. To blame those who care about issues the most for the failure of politicians in Washington and Sacramento and the electoral losses which followed was stunning.
The audience gathered that evening responded to the Schwarzenegger predictably: with muted, barely polite applause for the sitting governor. The mood had suddenly become as depressing as I have ever seen at a political event – especially one that is supposed to be a motivator. It was an understandable response by people who were just told that their convictions, the very reasons they’re in the room, had to go.
If this convention dinner was a movie, the Schwarzenegger speech was Act II, the part where things get as bad as bad can get.
It was on this dour note that the dinner would normally have ended. Governor Schwarzenegger left.
The Republican Governors Association was meeting nearby that weekend, and we had the good fortune to have several more governors speak to us that evening.
And here is where the story turns.
Next up was Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida, whose address lasted about 5 minutes. In this evening drama, Crist’s speech was the intermission.
The dinner would have ended as a depressing dud (except for the press in the back of the room, who had their weekend GOP circular firing squad stories neatly prepared for them) if not for the closing speaker of the evening: Governor Rick Perry of Texas. Keep in mind, both Governors Crist and Perry were present throughout the dinner while Governor Schwarzenegger complained about the party generally and conservatism specifically.
The Texas Governor got up and approached the podium. He took out several sheets of paper that contained his 5 minutes of prepared remarks, folded them, and placed them in his coat pocket. Instead of giving the speech originally planned, Perry tossed those comments aside and went on to give a rousing, from the heart, fire and brimstone speech that electrified a depressed audience and provided a powerful antidote to the Schwarzenegger address.
Governor Perry’s speech was not an attempt to hide from conservatism, disguise it, apologize for it, or blame it. Instead, Governor Perry chose to advocate for conservatism while taking our liberal opponents to task.
On point after point, for twenty minutes, Perry directly challenged Democrat policies of high taxes, global warming alarmism, lawsuit abuse, and on and on and on. It was from the heart, it was right on point, and it was extremely powerful. If you were in the audience that night, you know what I’m talking about.
“It’s a sad, sad state of affairs when liberals campaign like Republicans to get elected, and Republicans govern like liberals to be loved,” boomed Perry. The crowd went wild.
Governor Perry, in short, gave the positive, uplifting, forward-looking defense of conservatism while taking liberalism to task. That night, he was the un-Schwarzenegger.
Following the Perry speech, the audience of conservative activists and donors, which was in the dumps just minutes before, was on fire. If Governor Perry can ignite Republicans on the campaign trail the way he did that night, with forceful confidence in the Republican Party and conservative ideas, the nomination is his.