Conservative Populism has Burned the GOP Before

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Elizabeth Tandy Shermer is finishing her appointment as a Paul Mellon Fellow of American History at the University of Cambridge. She will join Loyola University of Chicago’s history department in the fall, when her first book, Creating the Sunbelt, will be released by the University of Pennsylvania Press.

Flat taxes, income tax moratoriums, and budget cuts have been proving themselves the least scintillating parts of the current Republican presidential primary, a contest strewn with revelations about sexual impropriety, open marriage, and religious zeal.

Yet populist candidates, whose personal lives are often as befuddling as their opinions and platforms, are nothing new; likewise, neither is the popular support that often propels them into office. Take for example, Republican Governor Evan Mecham. Arizonans generally like to forget about his fifteen months in office. New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Time reporters first took note of Mecham when he made good on his 1986 campaign promise to end state recognition of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. On January 20, 1987, less than a month after his inauguration, 10,000 protested in Phoenix. U2 and Stevie Wonder boycotted the state, and the National Football League cancelled plans to hold the 1993 Super Bowl in Arizona. State officials calculated that the decision had cost $500 million in tourism revenue. National and local disgust and mockery only increased after Mecham complained of too many African American NBA athletes, objected to civil rights for gays and lesbians, asserted working women were responsible for rising divorce rates, told a Jewish audience that they lived in a “Christian nation,” made racist remarks against Asian visitors, and defended creationism in the classroom (“the teacher doesn’t have the right to try to prove otherwise”).

But legislators were more alarmed by Mecham’s economic initiatives. The governor’s crusade for “fiscal and social responsibility” was a quixotic mix of short-term fixes and structural changes to the tax code. He bemoaned high individual sales and income taxes (“Our income tax rates are near the national average,” he noted in a 1988 address, “our sales tax ranks among the top ten in the nation, and Arizona was 14th in the nation in state taxes as a percentage of personal income”), whilst he promise to “hold the line on taxes” in order “to attract new industries and create new jobs for Arizonans.” Yet he did want to spend money. University budgets would, of course, be slashed, but the state would dedicate an additional $1 million toward a rural job and investment program. Mecham also demanded the power to carry out these reforms. His first sixty-seven page budget proposed to transfer legislative power to executive-branch appointees, cut $300 million in expenditures, and demanded the repeal of a once temporary 1 percent sales tax increase that had become permanent. Assembly members balked and only agreed to consider the decrease if Mecham’s “War on Waste” investigation could prove the levy unnecessary.

Representatives may have feared him but a majority of Republicans had made him the party’s nominee and a plurality had picked him in the three-way 1986 general election. Thus his victory was not the surprise pundits made it out to be. Mecham, after all, had been a fixture in Arizona politics since the 1960s. The self-described “Constitutionalist” had served as a state assemblyman, ran for senator, and campaigned for governor.

Mecham had fought his way into public office in the years when the state GOP was largely in the hands of the major Phoenix businessmen, department store heir Barry Goldwater foremost among them. These “crusaders,” as they had styled themselves during the 1940s, had detested both their party and their rivals in the 1930s and 1940s. The Democrats dominated Arizona in these years. Party registration was four-to-one, Democrats had the key to the governor’s mansion far more often than not, and voters had never sent a Republican to the House. Goldwater and other young upstarts systematically rebuilt the GOP into a powerful organization, dedicated to a free-enterprise conservatism incongruous with FDR and Truman’s liberalism as well as Eisenhower’s modern Republicanism. Their platforms and political campaigns, including Goldwater’s Senate bids and Howard Pyle’s gubernatorial runs, indicted liberals, trade unionists, business taxes, and workplace regulations as affronts to American entrepreneurialism and postwar economic growth. Republican women spread this message in old-fashioned registration drives, door-knocking and cold-calling that got the vote out for ambitious young Republicans. Hard work reaped rewards. When Goldwater secured his second Senate term in 1958, leading pundits declared the state GOP a potent force in Arizona politics. Officeholders wielded their power effectively: They slashed taxes on manufacturing and wholesaling, shifted the burden of paying for roads and schools onto homeowners and shoppers through higher personal property and sales taxes, and enforced anti-union legislation that limited the power of trade unions to bargain for higher wages and better benefits, all in the name of individual opportunity and industrial development.

Yet the party’s growth and appeal to populists like Mecham would bedevil the elite strata of businessmen in charge. In 1962, GOP leaders had picked lawyer Richard Kleindienst, who later served as Nixon’s attorney general, to run for Democrat Carl Hayden’s Senate seat. Mecham upset this scheme. The then thirty-eight year-old Glendale-based car dealer detested Arizona’s liberal Democrats as much as the state’s businessmen Republicans. The Utah-born Mormon identified with the libertarian Americans for Constitutional Action, which had a small following among Phoenix’s middle-class homeowners and small businessmen, those a class apart from Goldwater and other influential Republicans in charge of the GOP. Mecham was as much a populist as fiery Southerner George Wallace, the perennial presidential candidate who, as Michael Kazin noted in Populist Persuasion, packaged his racism within a mantle that celebrated the hard-working everyman, decried liberal disregard for the commonfolk, called on the God-fearing to lead, and promised freedom from government interference, whilst guaranteeing authoritarian state policies designed to apply the law and restore order.

Mecham offered voters a similar mix of political outrage. He advocated putting states in control of social security partly out of his fear of a “Creeping Socialism…in the minds of those who want to take all the struggle and pain out of living, who will trade freedom for what appears to be security, who gladly eat the fruits of another’s labor.” He decried “professional politicians,” including Hayden, who “belonged to Hyde Park, New York; Independence, Missouri; and Hyannis Port, Massachusetts” – not “a Conservative state.” Mecham also assailed well-established Republicans, especially those whom Mecham blamed for Hayden’s continual re-election: “they just went through the motions to fill the spot on the ticket.” He thus considered his run, “not between Republicans and Democrats…but between those who urge further advances toward Socialism, and those who believe in the creative Conservatism of the American Constitution,” which “dignifies the individual citizen.” Hence his “Let’s Get Arizona for the People” program favored the sale of 11 percent of federal lands in order to reduce individual property taxes in order to “give many people an opportunity to strike out on their own” and put the land to better use than “privileged interests who obtain Federal land leases for a few cents and acre…and sub-lease the land for profits up to one thousand percent.”

Such proposals played well with the GOP’s white, suburban base but actually hindered Mecham’s general election campaign. Indeed, the primary was electric. His “positive program based on the principles of creative, conservative, constitutional Americanism” included pledges to “get government out of business, stop aid to communist countries, and reduce taxes” and warnings that “The Republic was in danger of being destroyed by President Kennedy, the United Nations, Russia, the Common Market, and veteran Senator Hayden,” one of those Democrats, Mecham warned, “who do not believe in property rights and the free enterprise system” and were “selling socialism to the American people.” The upstart’s victory enraged GOP leaders. The candidate remembered just one meeting after his primary victory, during which Goldwater and Kleindienst “inform[ed] me that we were on our own to run the campaign.” He still faired better than many expected. Substantial suburban Phoenix support put him just 10,000 votes behind Hayden.

Mecham would win outright just fourteen years later. By then, other small businessmen politicians, like Georgia’s Lester Maddox and California’s Howard Jarvis, had begun to transform American state and local politics with a conservatism committed to free enterprise and individualism and derisive toward big business and big government. This kind of populism appealed to Arizonans in the mid-1980s. “Mecham had everything against him except that he opposed the higher taxes all of his establishment rivals favored,” an independent Flagstaff city councilwoman explained. “For every sushi bar in the state, I counted 40 bowling alleys,” a campaign coordinator elaborated, “Working classes saw Mecham as the enemy of BMW owners who exploit them.” “The Mechamites,” another staffer reiterated, “include many non-religious blue-collar workers, farmers[,] and small business owners,” “raucous, anti-establishment beer bar crowds,” and those who “accept that the Bible is the literal word of God and that the United States Constitution was divinely inspired.”

Yet this desert groundswell would not be able to keep Mecham in office. “This state has had enough,” a GOP state representative told reporters. Recall demands turned into an actual movement 180 days after his inauguration, the legal time requirement for such an effort. A gay Phoenix businessman collected 350,000 signatures, twice the support needed, in just a few months. Noted Arizona Democrats Morris Udall and Bruce Babbitt, later to be named Clinton’s secretary of the interior, signed the petitions; Goldwater publicly asked for Mecham’s resignation. Mecham lampooned the effort in the salty-tongue other populist candidates favored: “if a band of homosexuals and a few dissident Democrats can get me out of office, why heavens, the state deserves what else they can get.” Some Arizonans stood by their governor. A critic complained, “My relatives are convinced that Mecham has a divine mandate.”

Citizens never went to the polls to decide the matter. Arizona Supreme Court jurists cancelled the May 1988 recall election after Mecham was impeached on charges of concealing a $350,000 campaign contribution, loaning $80,000 in public funds to support his car dealership, and obstructing justice. After Mecham won an acquittal on all counts, he announced his sixth gubernatorial bid for a “kindler, gentler” Arizona a year later. Defeated in the 1990 GOP primary, he also lost a Senate gambit two years later, a final campaign before his 2008 death, roughly six months before the Goldwater’s senatorial heir John McCain picked Sarah Palin to appeal to the nation’s Wal-Mart moms and Joe Six-Packs.

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