It Takes a Fighter

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

I interviewed former Gov. Pete Wilson Monday night during a Zocalo Public Square forum at RAND. He talked in detail about budgets, taxes, the economy, prisons, immigration, and education – both in his time as governor and in our current times. But what struck me most was not what he said but how he said it.

Wilson recounted stories about difficult times and old fights with real enthusiasm. He’s someone who clearly relishes fights and hard times. That’s not necessarily an attractive trait in politicians (we like our politicians to sound soothing and talk like diplomats), but I think the ability to fight – and win fights – is an essential skill. His willingness to pick fights – even unpopular fights – helped him turn a record budget deficit into a surplus. But more and more, Americans vote for politicians who are, above all else, likable. Likability is overrated. We need more fighters and more know-how.

There was something else remarkable about Wilson’s comments. He talked in very partisan terms about his battles with Willie Brown, particularly during mid-term elections. Wilson is clearly a partisan, in a way that the current governor is not. But Wilson made very clear that he believes in compromise. He talked about taxes he raised against his will and cuts he made that he didn’t want to make, and criticized Republicans who refuse to compromise on anything.

In our era, we often talk about partisanship as if it was the opposite of compromise. Listening to Wilson, it was clear that he thought of a partisanship and compromise as related forces. He did not use these words, but his meaning was clear to me at leat: The honest conflict of partisan differences provides the basis for meaningful, necessary compromise.

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