Socially Liberal, Fiscally Conservative, Personally Narcissist

Can Arnold deliver on his substantial political promise?


This morning, Californians got what most Americans claim to want—a top government official who is fiscally conservative but socially liberal.

Arnold Schwarzenegger may still be a political hologram of sorts (especially after a campaign in which he deliberately avoided specific proposals and serious cross-examination), but the dope-smoking, Kennedy-marrying Friedmanite does radiate a genuine belief that government should stay out of people's lives when possible. As Editor Nick Gillespie wrote this summer, "he mirrors a contemporary consensus that generally wants a slightly smaller, more efficient government that nonetheless delivers a large number of public services."

Everybody (and especially the media) loves a maverick centrist, especially at first. As another famous political outsider-turned governor said in the flush of his victory: "I'm not a career politician… I stand before you as an advocate of minimal government interference and of minimum public reliance on government… I describe myself as fiscally conservative and socially moderate-to-liberal. We need to keep a permanently tight rein on government spending."

That governor was Jesse Ventura, and his experience suggests a moment of caution. I'm unqualified to judge his tenure in Minnesota (I'll defer to Reason post-mortems by Jacob Sullum and Mike Lynch), but comparing Ventura's bitter mid-term memoir, Do I Stand Alone?, to his sunny post-election bestseller, I Ain't Got Time to Bleed, demonstrates how narcissism and politics can combine to produce unpleasant, viewpoint-distorting paranoia. Granted, the experience of working with politicians every day is probably not the best way to improve one's disposition, but the Stand Alone Ventura is a petty character who confuses opposition to his policies with something approaching evil; a far cry from the cheerful, can-do chap found in this April 1999 Reason interview.

Schwarzenegger's narcissism makes Ventura's look trivial. His lone appearance in a gubernatorial debate was a festival of first-person, and his standard campaign tagline was a long-winded paean to his own selflessness in giving up "millions and millions of dollars" by entering public service. The common denominator of the various groping allegations made against him was a kind cruel exploitation of his powerful status vis-?-vis the lower-caste gropees.

While going through his on-the-job training, Schwarzenegger will be put in the unusual (for him) position of listener. Egomaniacs have many special talents, but listening usually isn't one of them. I watched Arnold conduct a sort of town-hall meeting with Latino businesspeople in Santa Clarita the weekend before the recall election, and he literally did not answer half of the very specific questions put to him (a woman who asked about the costs of employer-provided health care received a stump-speech recitation about workers' compensation; a guy wanting to know about policies affecting California Latinos heard fond anecdotes about Arnold shooting films in Mexico).

Schwarzenegger's inauguration speech today—which, like most of his post-election appearances, was far more impressive than just about anything he said during the campaign—was nevertheless swollen with self-regard. He compared the task at hand in Sacramento to nothing less than the Constitutional Congress of 1787. He reassured us that "I've never been afraid of the fight and I've never been afraid of the hard work." When he spoke of the "massive weight we must lift off our state," and insisted that "alone, I cannot lift it," it almost seemed like he expected us to think he could.

But just as there are pitfalls—not to mention rich comic material—in mixing egomania with politics, there is also considerable upside. The narcissist hates failure, and will often convert fear of it into a seemingly boundless supply of physical and mental energy (see Clinton, Bill). It is difficult to imagine Schwarzenegger letting himself slide into the kind of bobble-head caricature that the post-gubernatorial Ventura has become.

And most interestingly of all, Arnold is using his own star power as a key weapon in his governing toolbox. Lacking any deep political-party roots, and faced with a gerrymandered legislature of Republican and Democrat ideologues, Schwarzenegger is threatening to ram through any reforms they fail to deliver by going directly to the voters via ballot initiative. As he told reporters at the end of his first post-election press conference, "Please do me a favor. Stay with me the next three years, OK? Because you are absolutely essential for me to get my message out there."

It is rare the politician who begs for media scrutiny, and rarer still for the pleading to get such results—already, local Los Angeles television news stations are re-establishing long-shuttered Sacramento bureaus, and there were an eye-popping 740 press credentials issued for today's swearing-in.

If Schwarzenegger succeeds, more than just Californians will benefit. Republicans will have to broaden their tent to include politicians who believe limited government extends to the bedroom and the bong. And Democrats, in California at least, will have to find some way to win elections besides painting their opponents as knuckle-draggers "out of step with voters." If it takes a fame-leveraging narcissist to accomplish those tasks, then a little excessive first-person usage will be a small price to pay.