Arnold Schwarzenegger helped President Bush Tuesday night, but he helped himself even more. First, remember, this speech was a mutual accommodation. Gov. Schwarzenegger publicly urged Republicans to give him a prime-time slot. (This was not the first time he had put the Bushies on the spot: Shortly after his election, he publicly said the president should give California more money if he wanted to carry the state.) In the end, the president’s strategists realized the benefit of a strong Schwarzenegger endorsement, especially if it were on message.
”Terrorism is more insidious than Communism,” Schwarzenegger said last night–underscoring a key theme in the president’s political strategy, by recognizing the preemption of terror as a central national concern. In his remarks, Schwarzenegger implicitly brought us back to the man who won the Cold War, Ronald Reagan (which should not be surprising, given Schwarzenegger’s admirable judgment in enlisting former Reagan speechwriter Landon Parvin).
Many Americans forget that the Soviet Union existed, in force, barely a decade and a half ago–but not many conservative Republicans have forgotten. These latter remain the party’s base, and, for the hard-core at this convention, Arnold Schwarzenegger described himself as practically a refugee from Communism. He not only idolized icon John Wayne, the stalwart defender of the House Un-American Activities Committee, but even resurrected the man who exposed Alger Hiss before HUAC, Richard Nixon. More precisely, Schwarzenegger said he’s a Republican on account of Nixon. (This should defuse the awful rumors that Schwarzenegger is politically correct.) At that moment, Maria Shriver’s practiced stoicism paid off, as CNN’s resident comic observed–comparing her self-discipline to that of the wife of New Jersey’s gay governor.
And how about when Schwarzenegger described Hubert Humphrey as a socialist? That accurate (if iconoclastic) description reminded me of the circumstances under which I met Schwarzenegger for the first time: It was circa 1990, at a dinner for the libertarian Reason Foundation. No less an authority than the honored guest that evening, Milton Friedman, testifies to Arnold’s devotion to the free market.
Milton is the little giant, but politics challenges even his vastly superior mind. So what happens when a presumed free-market devotee becomes a politician? Unlike purist Friedman, Schwarzenegger is closer to the chamber of commerce than to entrepreneurs. It is the difference, some have said, between “free enterprise” and “free markets.” Still, Schwarzenegger is much better than Gray Davis; he has made genuine progress, notably in workers’ compensation reforms.
There is a new energy among California Republicans, but this enthusiasm is based on patronage as much as on principle. Power corrupts, and California Republicans are no exception. On California’s papered-over fiscal crisis, for example, Gov. Schwarzenegger was not “fierce and relentless.” And it cannot be said, when it comes to a serious spending limit, that he “doesn’t flinch, doesn’t waver, . . . doesn’t back down.”
For Schwarzenegger, style trumps substance. That’s because he is Orwellian in his definition of reality, which he owns. He is, after all, the consummate showman. But he is more: He is smart. There is no one around him who is sharper. And he is goal-driven. He has better political instincts and a keener sense of timing than any of his retainers, one of whom is Mike Murphy, who also counsels John McCain. And who among us does not agree with the proposition that McCain’s embrace of Bush is partly a setup for his own run for president in 2008? Surely, that’s likely too early for Arnold–which means Murphy has no conflict of interest.
Schwarzenegger nevertheless runs a permanent, full-time campaign operation. At various times, he is proposing and opposing major ballot measures on California’s costly ballot. He is always in campaign mode (a veritable WPA for Republican operatives), and he has a money machine of donors who curry favor with him. One theory holds that Schwarzenegger will bail as governor long before his deficit-reduction bonds come due. Senior U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein will not run in 2006: Why not run for her Senate seat, a nice transition to the presidency? There is, of course, the small matter of Orrin Hatch’s constitutional Amendment, which would have to pass before an immigrant could become president. But California’s governor is, as he reminds us, a positive thinker, and his immigrant spiel is enabling.
Yet, in last night’s speech, Schwarzenegger did not make Teresa Heinz Hyphen Kerry’s mistake. He did not dwell on himself; he said just enough.
–Arnold Steinberg is a California-based political strategist.