Schwarzenegger's Failure

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


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.

NEXT: Reid's Thin Reed Bends

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  1. His problems all started when he didn’t even stop to hear the lamentations of Gray Davis’ wife. A shame.

  2. Wow, I am so busy sucking my own cock, yet I was still able to be first! sweet

  3. Dam you Warty!

  4. Do you think Arnold inhaled?

  5. “Moderate Republicanism” equals: “lowest common denominator”.

    Just like every other modern political “philosophy”.

  6. Does Schwarzenegger still have that t-shirt?

  7. Pro-Lib-

    The t-shirt was worn in one of the final scenes of Pumping Iron. Arnold had just won his sixth atraight Mr. Olympia, defeating Lou Ferigno, Serge Nubret and his buddy, Franco.

  8. Nice job Matt. Let’s hope you put a stop to the Barbarian quicker than you did with the Maverick.

  9. Francisco Franco was a competitive bodybuilder? I learn so much here at Hit & Run.

  10. Does anyone know of any actual socially liberal, fiscally conservative Republicans? As we’ve seen with Arnold, most of the soc lib’s tend to be fiscally liberal too.

  11. Leric: Off the top of my head, I think Jeff Flake is the closest.

  12. I have to wonder how much of the disenchantment of the 18-29 group with the GOP has to do with anti-gay initiatives versus the bad taste that GWB has left in their mouth during a period when most have come of age politically. I suspect that the latter is more responsible.

  13. The GOP is getting what they deserve for jumping into bed with the crazy fucking jesus freaks like they did. The kind of freaks who think Israel going off the res is a good thing, because it brings us closer to the much awaited “end times” and all that. If the GOP wants to win elections, they’ll throw the jesus freaks overboard in favor of drug users, ala R.A.W.’s “Guns and Dope Party”

  14. Top of the Hill-

    When is Israel not “off the res”?

  15. As much as I would like it if they GOP got rid of the Jesus freaks in their constituency, they would be foolish to give up on them completely. They simply won’t win any elections without the support of social conservatives.

    Unfortunate but true.

  16. Does Arnold write the California budget all by himself, or does that task mostly fall to the Democrats, with their iron grip on the state legislature? Does he even have a line item veto?

  17. “promising to never again let the Golden State go near Gray Davis’ record-setting $38 billion deficit”

    That was one promise he kept, albeit in the wrong direction.

  18. This end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it scenario for the GOP may actually turn out to be a good thing. The state has no answers for fiscal or social conservatives, or liberals or libertarians, for that matter. For those with no where else to turn, Anarchocapitalism has never looked so good.

  19. Leric:

    In response to your question I believe former New Mexico gov Gary Johnson is the only one and he didn’t come clean on legalizing drugs until after he was elected to his second and final term.

  20. Great job! However, I see that MattW bases part of his “great thoughts” on the proposition 187 myth. And, that’s where I stopped reading.

    P.S. Here’s my Arnold Schwarzenegger summary.

  21. The beautiful thing about the events of 2008 is that both being socially conservative and fiscally conservative have been demonstrated to be political dead-ends on a national level. Democrats might have some difficulty keeping their now humongous tent up, but that’s a better problem to have than being the party of old, white, racists.

  22. The beautiful thing about the events of 2008 is that both being socially conservative and fiscally conservative have been demonstrated to be political dead-ends on a national level.

    Being a Republican was certainly a dead end, mostly due to the sorry-ass outgoing President.

    Yet gay marriage still got crushed on all the ballots, and I’m not sure how the hell anyone would know about fiscal conservatism, considering that it hasn’t been remotely tried in years.

  23. Show me an example of the mythical “fiscally conservative, socially liberal” politician. In every example I can think of, one or the other went out of the window.

    Sorry folks, but every politician I’m aware of that ever stuck to the “fiscally conservative” line like he meant business was socially conservative as well.

  24. Man, how did Welch miss the opportunity to describe Davis as “fiscally reckless and riskily feckless?” Certainly a lot more fun than “managerially incompetent”.

  25. It’s been like this for decades. Until about 30 yrs. ago, the choice among Republicans was between general conservatives and Ripon-Stassen-Rockefeller moderates. Then the traditionalist “religious right” moved in and the choice is now between them and the moderates. The line between those poles hardly ever gets nearer liberty than it is at the extremes.

    However, what is a good thing is that sometimes the emphasis of particular Republicans is taken off some of the bad points. In other words, sometimes we get benign neglect in some directions.

  26. The under-30 generation does not much comprehend political animus toward gays and ethnic minorities.

    The under 30 generation never does. That statement would have been just as true in 1979 as it is in 2009. And it will probably be just as true – and just as irrelevant – in 2039.

  27. Yes he is great..It getting harder every month to tell where Mexico ends and Calif. begins! Calif. is basically an bankrupt state. Maybe some day American Tax payers will realize it is impossible to support all of Mexico. Then maybe they will raise and frog hop all the Politicians out of town that refuse to abide by Article IV Section IV of our Constitution against invasion, refuse to enforce our Immigration laws, and refuse to abide by their Oath of Office!

  28. I don’t think Wilson cooked up the anti-immigrant fervor, he just tried to capitalize on it.

    As for Arnold’s wins, blame the Democrats for running exceptionally weak candidates like Bustamante and Angelides, both of whom greatly misunderstand California voters.

    California voters are very liberal, but pretty strongly against higher taxes. They don’t mind higher spending, and keep voting for insane bond measures. Arnold has figured this out, so the debt continues to escalate.

  29. The problem with California is that nobody realizes the bond measures they vote for aren’t magical. They don’t realize that one day, we’ll have to pay it back, that just because the ballot says it’s a loan and there’s no immediate impact to taxes doesn’t mean it’s a free ride.

    Regarding the rail, I told my co-worker I was upset it passed, because I said California couldn’t afford it right now, and there’s plenty of cheap ways to get in and out of San Fran as it is. And she said, “But I just think it’d be really cool.” A friend, regarding the stem cell measure, voted for it because Christopher Reeves had just died, and maybe if we knew more about stem cells we could have saved him. Which, maybe so, but the people in California have no idea that idealism can’t exist with reality.

    Sure, it’d be great to be able to pay for everything for children, and everyone who can’t make it on their own. I’m not being sarcastic, of course it would. But, obviously as seen by the deficit, as nice as it is, it’s not possible. Californians are too stuck in their ideas of what an ideal society should be to ever vote against spending more money “for a good cause.” And people say libertarians live in a fantasy world….

    Probably obvious disclaimer: I live in CA.

  30. I doubt that the bullet train will ever be built. By the time the engineering and the environment impact studies have been completed and accepted at least one of the following will have transpired:

    * Businesspeople will have discover the Internet and video conferencing, taking them off the potential passenger list and making the railway advocates’ projection of financial solvency impossible to attain.

    * Automobiles will no longer need fossil fuels, removing the green incentive for building the railway.

    * Transporters will developed.

    * Monkeys will evolve and take over the planet.

  31. The problem with California is that nobody realizes the bond measures they vote for aren’t magical.

    So true. My cousin, who is one of the most brilliant people on earth (you’d know his name if I chose to embarrass him) voted for the bullet train.

  32. Oh, come one TWC. You have to tell us now.

  33. *come on. Not come one.

  34. I think this article really underplays the hurt felt by the horseshoe over the sepecial election debacle (and the run up to it when the Nurses and the “Ed Coalition” just creamed the Governor’s approval numbers). When Susan Kennedy got into the COS seat basically it was a signal that the old Arnold was dead. But can one really blame him – the prospects were a “one and done” political career given the depths to whitch the CTA and the CNA had driven his numbers at a time of relatively economic prosperity.

  35. Very simply the product of the lesser of two evils. A Vote for the lesser of two evils is still a vote for evil.

  36. Any comment on California’s plight which refuses to make the distinction between legal and illegal immigration is worthless. Ninety percent of the outstanding murder warrants in Los Angeles are for illegals. Being anti-illegal is not ‘anti ethnic’ Mr Welch, it’s being pro citizen and anti-crime. If the border was secure we would still get a healthy influx of new citizens, albeit ones who start out by obeying the law.

    Also, why should the young have a hard time understanding that some folks are against gay marriage when it’s the same position as Obama and Biden?

    And just in case you really want to investigate wasteful CA spending, look no further than the public employee pension funds that are sucking the state dry.

  37. Arnold is not the problem it’s the something for nothing culture in the People’s Republic of California.

  38. One has to only look at Calif. which is basically an Bankrupt state that cannot afford to provide Welfare, Schooling, Medical etc. for millions of Criminals and uneducated peons from Mexico! In a very few years it will be impossible to see where Mexico ends and Calif. begins as both will be an third cesspool!

  39. How can we forget that one of his first actions was to stop a car tax when we were flush with cash-As I rrecall this would have generated 9Bil but he is just a s tupid celebreity

  40. Arnold tried to be “fiscally conservative” when he first got in and the left BASHED HIM big time when he tried unsuccessfully to CUT GOVT. SPENDING. He WAS the model of future Republicans to follow but after his defeat he became weak in order to get reelected. He has tried in vein to get the overwhelmingly Democratic legislature to give us reasonable spending. Notice how the Big Blue States like Cali. NY, and Mich are all broke while the fiscally conservative (NON UNION, non big labor) states like TX. Utah. Miss. have BUDGET SURPLUSES. Unfortunately our federal Govt. is about to go with HUGE Govt. spending programs and if you think we have budget problems now, wait till you see what it will be like with the liberally spending Dems in charge. Were screwed!

  41. So the California Republican Party has “failed to win any statewide offices for the first time since 1882.” Really? Matt, you forgot about George Deukmejian. He was governor from 1983-1991.

  42. Enough with this “socially liberal” but “fiscally conservative” bullshit! You are what you will spend your money on. If you ain’t willing to pay for it, you ain’t liberal. End of discussion.

  43. Matt, editor or Reason, you are either 1) an idiot, or 2) someone who thinks your readers are. 95% of CA’s crisis has to do with idiotic bond measures that idiot Californians pass via proposition, becuase they never think about the cumulative impact, and because many of the bond propositios say, wrongly, “this is not a tax!” in the defense section of the pamphlet they send us in every election. If this article is simply a huge mistake, it ASTOUNDS me that you are allowed to write and publish publicly, let alone be the editor in chief of Reason. If on the other hand, it is cynical, and you are trying to deceive, then shame on you. The solution to CA’s ongoing fiscal crisis is either A) for the electorate to grow a brain, or B) for the propositions to end. And since B will never happen without A, we’re in trouble. The Austrian is like the Dutch boy with his finger in the dike. The is NOTHING that ANYONE can do in Sacramento to fix our problems when voters, even during and after the onset of a huge fiscal crisis, will still pass totally discretionary multi-billion dollar bond projects!!!

  44. “Schwarzenegger led a recall effort”?

    That’s not how I remember it.

    Tom McClintock lead the recall effort, and real conservatives abandoned him.

  45. Leric, yes, Giuliani, although unfortunately he was really more urban legalist then libertarian and he’s no longer in politics. Also, I think WA-8 (a district that would elect such a person) representative Jennifer Dunn may have fit that description as well back when she was in politics, but she was essentially henpecked out of the party in 2004 and then died of a stroke 2 years later. Her son Reagan Dunn, however, is seeking office to maintain her legacy, but the West Coast has since then gone more socially conservative and he may have to adapt. The only current FCSL conservative I know of is Ahn Cao, R-New Orleans, who is likewise probably also an urban legalist.

  46. Ken, you are an idiot, along with being rude, offensive, clueless and completely uninformed. Bond measures are not California’s main problem. Not. Even. Close. Debt service in the current CA budget is just over 6% of the total budget. The real problems are a) that government has grown much faster than revenues and b) an unfriendly attitude toward capital that makes taxes high and regulations oppressive drives businesses and business owners away. This stuff is just not that hard. Impeach Arnie, he’s just the same as Davis! We elected him to say no to the legislature and he didn’t. No surprise. The Austrian talks Austrian economics and then does just the opposite of what a real Austrian (free-market libertarian) economist would do. And the Republicans get the blame, again. Electing Tom McClintock governor instead of the admitted drug user would have prevented this, but no the Orange County RINO mafia that runs the state GOP wanted the bodybuilder/”actor.” God help the suffering citizens of the state of Calyforniah.

  47. Pete Wilson won, and Gray Davis lost mainly because of his idiotic drivers-licenses to illegal aliens run. People drink their own Kool-Aid, apparently; and Davis apparently didn’t realize that voting Californians, like everyone else in the country, especially Republicans, are immigration restrictionists.

    Lying and self-delusion does nobody any good. It’s okay to subscribe to any of the horrible and phony rationales for Open Borders; just don’t delude yourselves into thinking that there is any popular base for the position outside of MECHA.

  48. ” 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.”

    Of course Wilson’s support of Prop 187 brought him from way behind to a resounding win. Only radical ideologues like Matt Welch could consider winning elections as a losing strategy for the Republican Party. Governor Swartzenegger used Davis’s signing of the drivers’ license for illegal immigrants bill to help recall him and win the Governorship. Of course Mr. Arnold Shriver doesn’t really give a damn about illegal immigration. In fact the only thing he really cares about is Arnold. He and the other useful idiots for the Democrats within the Republican Party are helping to ensure the permanent demise of that party with their unwillingness to stand against illegal immigration, alienating their rank and file and Reagan Democrats who believe that they shouldn’t have to compete with illegal immigrants in the labor marketplace in their quest to secure their share of the economic output of the country. And of course the resulting ethnic/racial politicians from all that illegal immigration belong to which party? Furthermore these Republicans give the Democrats the needed cover so that they can ignore the threat their pro illegal immigration would be to maintaining their power (in the short term; in the long term it creates demographic to assure it), just as Rahm Emanuel identified.

    Of course Welch, like the LA Times where he wrote, a paper that only hires those who agree with their open-border stances, is responsible to pushing the notion that anti-illegal immigration means anti-immigrant. If the media says something enough, it becomes true to many people and the anti-immigrant line has been repeated ad infinitum by newspapers. The majority of citizens that support limited and legal immigration and oppose illegal illegal or mass immigration simply are not given any representation in that newspaper and many others. That suppression of free debate that Welch was complicit in belies his libertarianism; freedom, except for ideas.

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  50. Very simply the product of the lesser of two evils. A Vote for the lesser of two evils is still a vote for evil.

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  53. The t-shirt was worn in one of the final scenes of Pumping Iron. Arnold had just won his sixth atraight Mr. Olympia, defeating Lou Ferigno, Serge Nubret and his buddy, Franco

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