September 1, 2003
Experience might not mean much to voters
Reagan used criticism to his advantage in '66
By GEORGE E. CONDON JR.
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
When they listen to Arnold Schwarzenegger's political opponents assail the actor's "inexperience," Jerry Brown and Lyn Nofziger hear echoes from a California race run almost four decades ago. Similar allegations were raised then and failed to sway an electorate unhappy with an incumbent insider.
"That didn't work for my father and they could be making the same mistake again," said Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown.
Ronald Reagan beat two-term Gov. Pat Brown by 18 points in 1966, and the younger Brown vividly remembers the campaign's losing tactics.
The memories are just as vivid for those who worked on that campaign for Reagan.
"There are definite echoes of it," Nofziger said.
Nofziger, who was to go on to become a decades-long adviser to Reagan, was the actor-turned-politician's press secretary that year. He has been credited with contributing to Reagan's success at rebutting Pat Brown's argument about Reagan's lack of political experience.
Reagan deflected Brown's statements with one disarming comment: "The man who currently has the job has more experience than anybody. That's why I'm running."
"What they keep forgetting, then and now, is that most people don't think you need that much experience to be governor," Nofziger said.
The younger Brown, who was to succeed Reagan as governor and serve two terms in the office, agreed.
"We don't want to overstate the experience needed to be governor," he told CNN earlier this month. "I've been there. I can tell you what it is. It's not like, you know, fixing a complicated airplane engine. It takes some intelligence. It takes common sense. It takes some character, some understanding, and concern about what is needed by California."
Schwarzenegger's opponents, though, have been unable to resist pointing out his inexperience.
"We must have a governor who knows every inch of this government," said Republican state Sen. Tom McClintock of Thousand Oaks in one commercial.
In thinly veiled references to Schwarzenegger, Gov. Gray Davis and Republican candidate Peter Ueberroth, who is running as an independent, have also suggested voters need someone with experience.
Similar arguments failed four years ago when former wrestler and political novice Jesse Ventura defeated two seasoned politicians in the race for governor of Minnesota.
But while these arguments failed to derail Reagan or Ventura, they could damage Schwarzenegger, said Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo.
"For some voters, it cuts both ways," he said. "For Republicans, it actually might be a net positive. They don't associate him with career politicians. . . . But for many, many Democrats, it's a negative."
DiCamillo said Schwarzenegger needs to overcome doubts about his experience to build a coalition larger than his Republican base.
"If he comes across as very knowledgeable, up-to-speed, holds his own in debates, you can break through not having that experience," the pollster said.
Brown added, "Where it will come out is if during the campaign, it looks like he doesn't have a grasp of things. That's where your lack of experience comes out and Reagan looked like he could handle things."
If Schwarzenegger passes this test, Brown said, "then it basically comes down to how much do voters dislike the one you are running against and do you represent the dominant mood of the time."
Nofziger suggested the hurdle might be higher for Schwarzenegger than it was for Reagan, who had earlier experience as president of the Screen Actors Guild and as a Republican Party insider.
"The difference is that Reagan had a pretty solid idea of what he wanted and where he stood." he said. "So far, Schwarzenegger has not given any strong indication of exactly what it is he wants to do or what his philosophy of government is."
Another big difference between the campaigns of 1966 and 2003 is that no politician today would copy Pat Brown's attempt to mock his opponent as unfit simply because he is an actor.
Reagan biographer Lou Cannon recalled that Brown aired a 30-minute "documentary" titled "Man vs. Actor." In that program, Brown told a group of children, "I'm running against an actor, and you know who shot Lincoln, don't cha?"
Today, Cannon said, most Californians appreciate that Hollywood is a major industry in the state. "Nobody thought it odd when George Romney, an auto magnate, ran for governor of Michigan. And people know that entertainment is one of the state's premier industries."
State Democratic Chairman Art Torres was one of the few to refer to Schwarzenegger's movie career, saying, "It's one thing to see a movie . . . but to have this guy as your governor, I think people are going to think more than twice about it."
Torres has recently focused his attacks on Schwarzenegger's lack of experience.
"Anti-experience is legitimate," Cannon said. "Anti-actor is not."