The Palin-Schwarzenegger Smackdown

Republicans have been stymied about what to do about Sarah Palin—until Arnold Schwarzenegger took a swing at her. Joe Mathews on how the Governator’s strategy could pave the way to GOP victory.

For the Republican Party, Sarah Palin has been a problem with no solution. She is a divisive figure, a culture warrior whose celebrity and command of media attention has allowed her to eclipse or bully party leaders with more appeal to independents. No one within the party has been able to put her in her place.

Until late last week, when Palin got into a media fight with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

For mainstream Republicans who often seemed cowed by tea-party rejectionists, the contest revealed a method for neutralizing the party’s Palinists.

Their clash—an exchange over climate change—was brief but telling. In both style and substance, Arnold vs. Sarah offered a preview of the coming debate within the party over how the GOP might govern as it bids to return to power next year. And for mainstream Republicans who often seemed cowed by tea-party rejectionists, the contest revealed a method for neutralizing the party’s Palinists.

What made the contest compelling were the similarities of the contestants. Palin is a skilled media manipulator who cleverly trades on personality, physical appearance, and a knack for sharp one-liners. So is Schwarzenegger, who had the crucial advantage of having played this game for 30 years. In taking on the governor of California, Palin foolishly launched a rivalry with a smarter, savvier version of herself.

Palin prompted the exchange by launching an extended attack against climate science (she claims there’s no evidence that humans are responsible for changes) and against efforts to fight global warming (too costly, she maintains). She even called on President Obama to boycott the talks in Copenhagen.

In so doing, she stepped right into the path of Schwarzenegger, who has championed climate legislation and attended the Copenhagen talks. Some response was inevitable, and predictably, a Financial Times reporter asked the California governor about Palin’s comments.

How would Schwarzenegger answer Palin?

The governor might have expressed disagreement with her views, but that would only have served Palin, by amplifying her criticism of Copenhagen and treating her as a serious voice in the debate. He could have attacked her personally and directly, but that would have played into her hands. Palin’s persona is built on the notion of her as a victim, under attack by politically correct forces; in this theology, she is a common-sense truth-teller, a stand-in for regular folks and their resentments.

Schwarzenegger understood this instinctively. So he came at her sideways, not disputing her views or her brain, but simply asking a question about Palin’s motives.

"You have to ask: what was she trying to accomplish?" Schwarzenegger told the Financial Times.

"Is she really interested in this subject or is she interested in her career and in winning the [Republican presidential] nomination? You have to take all these things with a grain of salt." He followed with a similarly indirect dig on ABC’s Good Morning America.

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This was effective for two reasons. First, Schwarzenegger was reminding people of Palin’s selfishness; she had quit her job as governor Alaska to pursue personal goals, as most Americans know. Second, Schwarzenegger’s comments put Palin on the defensive. He was challenging the very heart of her populist appeal—her authenticity. Did she really mean what she said, or was this just another bit of self-promotion?

Schwarzenegger was the perfect person to deliver this message: the Hollywood star of 30 years saying that this was just another starlet trying to make her mark. He had seen it all before.

Palin would have been wise to let the matter drop there. Instead, Palin, accustomed to being on offense, took the bait.

Responding on Facebook, she accused Schwarzenegger of acting “greener than thou” and said that she took climate change seriously. “I was among the first governors to create a sub-cabinet to deal specifically with climate change,” she wrote.

This failed in two ways. First, by hitting back at Schwarzenegger, she produced a series of Arnold vs. Palin stories in the media—including the piece you’re currently reading—that gave more airtime to the Californian’s digs at her. Second, she stepped on her own message of climate change skepticism, by defending herself as a fighter against climate change just after criticizing efforts to fight it. This was Palin as an Arctic John Kerry: she seemed to be saying she was against climate change before she was for it.

In one exchange, Schwarzenegger managed to make Palin look selfish, defensive, and incoherent.

And irresponsible. On Facebook, Palin also threw in a thoroughly false dig at the troubles of Schwarzenegger’s home state—declaring that climate change policies were responsible for the state’s budget deficits and record unemployment. (In truth, while there is robust debate about the economic impact climate change legislation in California may have in the future, actual regulations are too few and new to have had any measurable economic impact.) Whatever the policy particulars, Palin—having left her own governorship in mid-term—was the wrong person to raise questions about Schwarzenegger’s governance.

Palin seemed to see Schwarzenegger as an easy target, the sort of Republican In Name Only that her conservative partisans love to hate. But the Schwarzenegger vs. Palin comparison is not one that serves her well, not because of their differences but because of their similarities.

In a contest between celebrities, he wins both on style—he’s more famous and better at sound-bytes—and on substance.

This is why GOP regulars who want to marginalize Palin—and that should include any Republican interested in unifying the party and winning a national election—should beg Schwarzenegger to keep up his blasts at Palin.

A war of words would be good for the California governor too. For all his mistakes, Schwarzenegger has tried desperately to make the centrist compromises needed to govern. He has been defeated, again and again, by Palinist ideologues whose distrust of government has careened, in the words of the author Sam Tanenhaus, into a doctrine of “full-scale repudiation of governance itself.” Making life miserable for Palin, the hero of the anti-governance crowd, would be more than delicious payback. It would be a public service for someone so skilled at media warfare to stand up for the virtues of governance in the face of non-stop bullying from the populist right.

America needs a Palin Terminator. So why not the Terminator?

Joe Mathews is a journalist, an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation, and a contributing writer at the Los Angeles Times. He previously served as Justice Department reporter for the Wall Street Journal and as a city desk reporter at the Baltimore Sun. He is the author of The People's Machine: Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Rise of Blockbuster Democracy.