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Schwarzenegger's Failure

If the California governor is the face of "moderate" Republicanism, the party is even more doomed than the 2008 elections suggest

Matt Welch
January 5, 2009

You can’t really argue with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s political success. In 2002 the California Republican Party, still suffering from the anti-immigrant fervor cooked up by former Gov. Pete Wilson, failed to win any statewide offices for the first time since 1882. Yet just one year later Schwarzenegger led a recall effort against the fiscally reckless and managerially incompetent Democratic governor, Gray Davis, beating out the nearest Democratic challenger for the newly vacated position by a margin of more than 2 to 1. Even as Republicans nationwide took a drubbing in the 2006 elections, losing both houses of Congress and the majority of governorships for the first time in 12 years, the bodybuilder-turned-actor, running in an increasingly blue state, smashed Democrat Phil Angelides by a ridiculous 17 percentage points. (For more on how Angelides still managed to push California closer to fiscal disaster, see Jon Entine’s “The Next Catastrophe,” page 20.)

That the Austrian Oak pulled out such a victory just two years after calling Democrats “girly-men” at the Republican National Convention, and only 12 months after having his pet special-election ballot initiative package decisively repudiated at the polls, cemented Schwarzenegger’s persona as a masterfully adaptive politician, able to bend in the direction of the Golden State’s famously eccentric electorate in a way that his fellow state Republicans, with their emphases on immigration and abortion, could not.

Three years after knee-capping Schwarzenegger with an investigation of his tendency to paw unwilling women, the Los Angeles Times was arguing that the U.S. Constitution should be amended so that the foreign-born governor might one day become president. Time magazine put Arnold and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg on its cover in June 2007, offering their cosmopolitan Republicanism as the only hopeful future for a party increasingly dominated, and dragged down by, social conservatives. These “socially liberal Republicans who have flourished in Democratic political cultures,” the magazine enthused, are “doing big things that Washington has failed to do.”

Chief among the things Schwarzenegger and Bloomberg have accomplished is winning elections. Republicans took an even worse drubbing in November 2008 than in November 2006, and as I write are neck deep in a civil war over the party’s future, with cultural conservatives rallying behind controversial Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to represent what is now the largest voting bloc remaining inside Ronald Reagan’s diminished big tent. To the less-than-casual observer who has a distaste for social conservatism (i.e., the average journalist), the only way forward for the Grand Old Party in the 21st century is a kind of moderate Schwarzeneggerism. “Pragmatic Republicans like [Florida Gov. Charlie] Crist, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, Indiana governor Mitch Daniels and even conservative Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal,” Time’s Tim Padgett wrote after the 2008 elections, “will likely be the phoenixes that rise from the GOP ashes of 2008.”

If that’s true, Republicans may be worse off than we thought. It’s not that Schwarzenegger is wrong about de-emphasizing or even rejecting elements of social conservatism. Expending political energy on making sure same-sex couples cannot be legally recognized as married, as Republicans continue to do with short-term success in California and elsewhere, is both bad policy (by consciously restricting the freedom of a disfavored minority) and lousy politics. The under-30 generation does not much comprehend political animus toward gays and ethnic minorities. As a result, voters between the ages of 18 and 29 are abandoning Republicanism in near-record numbers. Forget the youthful, cross-cultural Barack Obama; the 18-to-29 vote went 63 percent Democrat to 34 percent Republican for the House of Representatives. If Republicans aren’t careful, they’ll go the way of newspapers, becoming something only old people are interested in.

The promise of coastal Republicans in Name Only like Schwarzenegger, at least for the limited-government proponents (including me) who have invested hope in him over the years, was supposed to be that the descriptor socially liberal would be followed by another very important phrase: fiscally conservative. And that’s where the Milton Friedman–quoting governor has been an unalloyed disaster.

Schwarzenegger blew into office decrying California’s bloated budget, vowing to “blow up the boxes” of Sacramento’s bureaucracy, and promising to never again let the Golden State go near Gray Davis’ record-setting $38 billion deficit. Five years into the Schwarzenegger era, the budget has ballooned from $100 billion to $145 billion, and the state’s legislative analyst announced in November that California was facing a deficit of $28 billion. Bond market ratings assess the state as a bigger lending risk than Slovakia. And those bureaucratic boxes have remained largely intact.

How does Schwarzenegger defend this sorry record? In part, by blaming Republicans. “I think the important thing for the Republican Party is now to also look at other issues that are very important for this country and not to get stuck in ideology,” he said on CNN five days after the election. “Let’s go and talk about health care reform. Let’s go and…fund programs if they’re necessary programs and not get stuck just on the fiscal responsibility.”

What are some of these “necessary programs”? How about a $9.9 billion bond for a long-dreamed-of high-speed rail project between Los Angeles and San Francisco that is expected to cost at least $45 billion, which even supporters such as the Los Angeles Times editorial board think will require “many billions more” in subsidies? Then there’s the $3 billion bond from 2004 to put California bureaucrats in the stem cell research business, mostly as a poke in the eye of George W. Bush.

How to pay for all this during what the governor has declared a “financial emergency”? Partly by rattling the tin cup outside the White House. Schwarzenegger was one of the first governors to hit up Washington for some of that fat bailout money gushing from the Oval Office.

But the spending splurge also requires new taxes, according to the governor: a “temporary” 1.5-percentage-point increase in the 7.25 percent sales tax, an increase in the number of services covered by the sales tax, higher taxes for alcohol and oil production, and so on. Many analysts believe that the governor who quickly fulfilled his recall-campaign promise to cut the state’s vehicle license fees will soon resort to restoring those charges to at least Gray Davis levels.

Even on social issues, where Schwarzenegger’s more libertarian approach was supposed to avoid the Republican trap of freedom constricting politics, the governor instead has embraced the freedom-constricting policies of the left. To cite one particularly ironic example, in 2004 he signed a law requiring every California employer with more than 50 workers to force upon its managers state-approved sexual harassment training.

Republicans in 2009 are in a mess of their own making. If they interpret the Democrats’ sweeping victory as a clarion call to foray further into religiously inspired, Terry Schiavo–style politics that uses government as a lever to manipulate and control other people’s lives, then they will deserve their exile from power.

But it will take more than just eschewing cultural conservatism and adopting the Democrats’ interventionist economic approach to refresh the Republican brand. There is room right now for an opposition party that emphasizes what the governing party does not: freedom, as both the ultimate goal and the means to achieve it.

Back when he was taping testimonials for Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose, Arnold Schwarzenegger looked like the kind of person who would indeed choose freedom if given a chance to govern. Instead, he punted on the radical, government-reducing reforms offered to him by his own box-exploding California Performance Review and learned to love—or at least perpetuate—the very bureaucracy he was elected to confront. That’s not a blueprint for 21st-century Republicanism. It’s just George W. Bush’s big-government conservatism with a Hollywood face.

Matt Welch is editor in chief of reason. This column first appeared at Reason.com.


Matt Welch is Editor in Chief, Reason


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