A few months ago, Arnold Schwarzenegger and a few close associates discussed whether he should leave the Republican Party, according to two people familiar with the conversation. His friend Mike Bloomberg, the New York mayor, had become an independent. Maybe Schwarzenegger should, too. But the governor and his people quickly concluded that Californians already saw him as independent of the Republican Party. So what would be the point of a switch? (A spokesman for the governor declined comment.)
To people outside the state, Schwarzenegger’s recent battles with Republican legislators over a budget and his criticism of GOP governors and congressmen for their opposition to President Obama’s stimulus package might sound jarring. Schwarzenegger once was “Conan the Republican” (the first President Bush’s nickname for him), a politician who declared in his 2004 convention speech, “I'm proud to belong to the party of Abraham Lincoln, the party of Teddy Roosevelt, the party of Ronald Reagan and the party of George W. Bush.” Now he is on ABC News saying that “it doesn’t really mater if you’re a Republican or a Democrat.”
The most consequential political divide in America’s largest state is not between Democrats and Republicans but between the centrist GOP governor and his own party.
But for Californians and others who have closely watched his political career, Schwarzenegger’s differences with Republicans are a very old story. In fact, those differences are the story. The most consequential political divide in America’s largest state is not between Democrats and Republicans but between the centrist GOP governor and his own party.
If GOP legislators were willing to support their own governor’s agenda, Schwarzenegger now would boast a record of accomplishment that would put him in the first rank of California governors, right up there with Earl Warren and Pat Brown. Instead, commentators here routinely dismiss Schwarzenegger as a Gulliver tied down by legislative Lilliputians—“an amateur governor,” as the Sacramento Bee’s Dan Walters recently put it, who couldn’t turn political opportunities into substantive change.
How did the marriage between Schwarzenegger and his party go bad? The truth is that it was never much of a marriage. Schwarzenegger’s criticism of Republicans pre-dates his entry into political life. At first, however, many Republicans loved the actor’s image so much that they didn’t pay attention to his words. “Arnold is a very seductive individual,” said Stephen Moore, then president of the conservative Club for Growth, in 2004.
As an actor, Schwarzenegger developed warm personal relationships with the first President Bush and Milton Friedman. But in his work as Bush’s fitness czar, he was privately critical of the party and the administration’s education policy, according to letters on file at the Bush presidential library in College Station, Texas. In 1998, Schwarzenegger publicly condemned the national party for leading the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. (Clinton sent a thank-you note, which the actor framed and put up in his home). The following year, when California Republican operatives first approached him about entering politics, Schwarzenegger showed no interest and instead delivered a diatribe about all that was wrong with the party.
Schwarzenegger says he decided to run in part to change politics. But his party was in power nationally, and not receptive to change. Karl Rove was dismissive of Schwarzenegger during a White House meeting in the spring of 2003, just months before the actor entered the recall election to replace Gray Davis. In that nonpartisan contest, Schwarzenegger initially was the second choice for Republican voters. They preferred a true red-state senator named Tom McClintock. Schwarzenegger won over McClintock voters only at the end of the race, when the Los Angeles Times published its now famous story about the actor’s history of “groping” women. Anyone who drew that kind of attack from the liberal media, conservatives figured, must not be so bad.
Behind the scenes, Schwarzenegger was an unenthusiastic endorser of Bush in 2004. His convention speech came off only after debate within the governor’s own camp over whether to give the address. And Schwarzenegger would make only a single appearance with Bush during the campaign—a stop in Columbus, Ohio, where Schwarzenegger has close friends and longstanding business interests. In 2008, Schwarzenegger skipped the Republican convention, though he had a good excuse: He was stuck in California, where Republicans were holding up the budget.
Throughout Schwarzenegger’s five years in office, California Republicans, despite being a minority in the legislature, have used the state’s requirement of a two-thirds vote on fiscal matters to thwart his agenda. A majority of GOP legislators routinely oppose his budgets. Republican opposition helped doom the governor’s top second-term priority: legislation to establish universal health coverage in the state by requiring the insurance industry to cover everyone and requiring all individuals to purchase health insurance. GOP lawmakers stood in the way of major Schwarzenegger initiatives on water, prisons, and the environment. Republican objections also contributed to the downsizing of the governor’s proposal of $200 billion in infrastructure investment. (The eventual package passed by the legislature and approved by voters was $40 billion.)
Schwarzenegger himself is responsible for many of his problems. The governor did not devote much time to building deep personal relationships with Republican lawmakers. At a rare meeting last year with the governor, some of these lawmakers wore nametags. After a marriage to a Kennedy and a long career in Hollywood, Schwarzenegger seems more personally comfortable with Democratic leaders. Worse still, Schwarzenegger in private could talk insultingly about Republican lawmakers. They were “foreheads,” “the wild bunch,” or “out there.” Such comments spread quickly in the gossipy Capitol.
Without close personal ties, Schwarzenegger’s political differences with Republicans loomed larger. The governor has appointed Democrats and Republicans in roughly equal numbers to state jobs. His chief of staff is a Democrat. On policy, he tangled with the Bush administration on a variety of environmental matters. His declaration, in his second inaugural address, that he would govern as a “post-partisan” was considered a betrayal by some partisan Republicans who had held their noses and worked for his re-election.
All this is why Schwarzenegger’s recent apostasies—supporting Obama’s stimulus and pushing for a budget with tax increases—have drawn mostly silence from national Republican leaders. Schwarzenegger’s dissing the party? That’s just Arnold being Arnold. Republicans could hit back at him. But what would be the point?
A fourth-generation Southern Californian, Joe Mathews is a journalist, an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation, and a contributing writer at the Los Angeles Times. He is the author of The People’s Machine: Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Rise of Blockbuster Democracy.