The Trouble with Ridge

by John J. Miller on September 8, 2010

in Articles,Politics

  • Sumo

June 5, 2000

It’s not just abortion


The worst moment in Tom Ridge’s campaign to become George W. Bush’s running mate may have come in a state where Ridge doesn’t live and at an event he didn’t attend. Bush was sitting in the second row at St. Patrick’s Cathedral during John Cardinal O’Connor’s funeral Mass on May 8 when Bernard Cardinal Law, giving the homily, declared that the Catholic Church “must always be unambiguously pro-life.” If Bush learned anything from listening to the loud applause that lasted for about two minutes following the remark, it’s this: The GOP nominates a pro-choice Catholic for vice president at its peril.

And that’s the conventional rap against Ridge. The 54-year-old Republican governor of Pennsylvania has been unambiguously in favor of abortion rights throughout his political career, despite the fact that he’s Catholic (he attends weekly Mass) and that his views put him out of sync with most of his party, including Bush. He hasn’t always gone overboard to make amends, either. When a group of pro-lifers visited his congressional office in 1984, Ridge asked them starkly, “Does the government have a right to force a woman to be an incubator for nine months for another individual?” More recently, in 1998, the bishop in Ridge’s hometown of Erie, Pa., announced that pro-choice Catholic pols aren’t welcome at church-sponsored events. Bishop Donald Trautman didn’t specifically name Ridge, but everybody knew whom he was talking about. “It pains me to disagree with my faith community,” says the governor, whose kids go to Catholic school. “But it’s a very difficult, personal decision that belongs ultimately to the woman.”

Despite these troubles, the flap over abortion may actually help Ridge’s ambitions in an unexpected way. Because virtually all of the speculation over his nomination has focused on abortion politics, many Republicans are left with a vague impression that Ridge is another one of the GOP’s reform-minded governors–an ideological cousin of Michigan’s John Engler or Wisconsin’s Tommy Thompson. But that’s a mistake. Ridge is not a conservative who happens to be pro-choice; he’s a liberal Republican who happens to have done a handful of conservative things as governor. Putting him on the ticket is a fateful bargain. Perhaps he can overcome pro-life outrage and help Bush get elected this year. But at what cost down the road?

The case for Ridge is fairly straightforward: Two separate polls this spring show Bush slightly ahead of Vice President Gore in Pennsylvania, and increasing his lead by several points if he runs with Ridge. That’s 23 electoral votes in a state Gore can’t well afford to lose. What’s more, Ridge has a personal biography right out of central casting. He grew up in a working-class family, earned a scholarship to Harvard, and later enlisted in the Army and fought in Vietnam. There he won a Bronze Star “for exceptionally valorous actions.”

Bush first met Ridge in 1980, when Ridge was a supporter of Bush’s father during the Republican primaries and George W. was traveling in Pennsylvania. Two years later, Ridge won a House seat by just 729 votes in a district full of union members. He was reelected five times, but the races were never very close–perhaps because Ridge became one of the Reagan administration’s leading Republican adversaries in Congress.

Just as most Pennsylvania Democrats are more conservative than the national party, Pennsylvania Republicans are typically more liberal. Ridge fits the mold. Between 1984 and 1988, for example, he was more likely to oppose President Reagan’s position on a given issue than he was to support it, according to a Congressional Quarterly analysis. In 1987 and ’88, he aligned himself with the Reagan White House only 40 percent of the time. He supported President Bush somewhat more often, but he still lagged far behind the typical House Republican. Following a minimum-wage vote on which Ridge was one of only 19 Republicans to favor a hike, a reporter asked Pennsylvania congressman Bill Goodling whether Ridge had any friends left in Congress. “On our side of the aisle, he would have none,” replied Goodling.

But, again, it was a tough district. If a Republican must cast union-friendly votes to hold the seat, Republicans argued, then so be it. Better that than a Democrat who won’t stand with the GOP on anything.

Except that Ridge held a number of positions that can’t be explained by devotion to his blue-collar constituents. At a time when Reagan was peeling off Democrats on Cold War issues, Ridge consistently played the dove. He voted to support the nuclear freeze, abolish the MX missile, deny funding to the Nicaraguan contra rebels, and adopt Pat Schroeder’s plan to bar nuclear tests above one kiloton.

On funding for the Strategic Defense Initiative, Ridge wasn’t just a “no” vote, but a leader in the enemy camp. In 1989, he teamed up with representative Charles E. Bennett, Democrat of Florida, in a Christian Science Monitor op-ed that criticized SDI as the sorry result of “a lot of dreaming.” Ridge and Bennett then authored a successful amendment slashing the SDI budget from $ 4.9 billion to $ 3.1 billion. They struck again a year later, leading the charge to reduce SDI’s funding to $ 2.3 billion. “The SDI mission continues to evolve–the leakproof shield is history,” Ridge said afterward. Two years later, he was one of just eleven Republicans to support stripping another $1 billion from the program.

Ridge seemed to go out of his way to tweak Republicans. In 1996, he reminisced in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about how he “gave all those Republicans heartburn” with his various stances. Four years earlier, while still in Congress, he penned an op-ed for the Philadelphia Inquirer blasting President Bush’s “obsession” with a capital-gains tax cut: “About all it will do will be to churn the stock market and increase the profits of stock brokers and traders.” That’s not exactly the message George W. wants to convey to the investor class this year.

As governor, Ridge has compiled a mixed record. “If you compare him to the alternatives–such as a liberal Democrat–he’s great,” says James Broussard, head of Citizens Against Higher Taxes, the state’s leading taxpayer group. “If you compare him to what conservatives would like, he doesn’t look so good.” Ridge has reformed welfare and worker’s compensation, held out against gun control, and signed more than 200 death warrants. But he also raised the gas tax, presides over a budget that accounts for one-sixth of all state-level economic-development spending in the country, and now stands idly by as one of his departments tries to shut down day-care centers run by churches and synagogues that resist state licensing. Ridge has cut business taxes, but these remain high compared with other states. And only a portion of Pennsylvania’s current $583 million budget surplus will return to the pockets of taxpayers.

School choice is another sore point. The state legislature came close to passing it several times in the 1990s, both before and during Ridge’s time in office. The governor has lobbied for the cause–but many Pennsylvania conservatives wonder if he’s really done enough. Following his big reelection win in 1998, they felt that Ridge had amassed the political capital to make a successful push for vouchers. Instead, the governor devoted himself almost wholly to a controversial debt-financing bill for high-cost sports stadiums in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. He was at the height of his political power, and he chose to build skyboxes. “Why didn’t he go the distance for school choice?” asks Sean Duffy of the Commonwealth Foundation, a think tank in Harrisburg.

Conservatives also grumble about Ridge’s personnel decisions. “He’s made very liberal appointments in Harris burg,” says Michael Geer of the Pennsylvania Family Institute. Adds Charlie Gerow, a prominent conservative who backed Ridge in the 1994 gubernatorial primary, “I’m hard-pressed to name even a single conservative on his staff.” Ridge’s deputy chief of staff, in fact, has close ties to the Clinton White House; she and her husband, a generous Democratic donor, slept in the Lincoln Bedroom in 1996.

Any vice-presidential pick is important, but particularly for the GOP, which has a tendency to nominate candidates for president when it’s “their turn.” That means there’s a good chance Bush’s running mate this fall will be the Republican presidential nominee the next time Bush doesn’t run, especially if the GOP regains the White House in November. Nailing down Pennsylvania for the Republicans this fall is tempting–but it’s a deal that may have important consequences for conservatives in 2004 or 2008.

In April, Ridge caused a minor stir when he said that he thought the GOP should change its pro-life platform. He hasn’t retreated from that belief, but now he’s careful to moderate it. “I expressed a personal opinion. I’ve never been part of any effort to do that and won’t be this year,” he says. “We should be fighting Al Gore, not each other.”

No matter what the issue–abortion, missile defense, the capital-gains tax–that’s pretty good advice.

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