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Terminator, You're No Great Communicator

September 15, 2003|Lou Cannon

Arnold Schwarzenegger admires Ronald Reagan, and his strategists claim he is Reagan-esque in his desire to change the political landscape. Perhaps they would better serve their candidate if they paid attention to what happened to Reagan when he ducked debates.

In 1980, Reagan was the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. The polls showed him so far ahead that his managers avoided encounters with opponents and flew Reagan across the country for cameo performances in which he rarely engaged with voters or the media. In keeping with this strategy, Reagan declined to participate in a Republican debate held in Iowa before the presidential primary caucuses. The other contenders debated, just as five replacement candidates for governor did earlier this month in a debate in Walnut Creek that Schwarzenegger shunned.

When Reagan failed to show for the debate in Des Moines, his absence became an issue. Rivals questioned his competence, and media coverage of Reagan became more critical. George H.W. Bush, an underdog, won the Iowa caucuses.

The defeat stung Reagan. He traded his comfortable plane and the above-the-clouds strategy that went with it for a grueling, ground-level bus campaign in the New Hampshire primary. He answered any and all reporters' questions and debated the Republicans he had ducked in Iowa. The first forum was in Manchester, and Reagan did well. A week later, he routed Bush in a debate in Nashua in which Reagan proclaimed that he had "paid for the microphone" and refused to be silenced by a pro-Bush moderator.

This was the turning point. From then on, Reagan romped to the nomination, winning 29 of 33 primaries in which he and Bush competed. And he remembered the lesson of Iowa when, in the face of divided counsel from his strategists, he decided to debate President Carter. The debate is remembered for Reagan's telling (and practiced) riposte to Carter, "There you go again." It broke open a close race and set the stage for a Republican landslide.

To be sure, Reagan was by 1980 an experienced campaigner who was running for president for the third time. He was less sure-footed in 1966 as a novice candidate for governor of California. In an appearance before the National Negro Republican Assembly in Santa Monica, Reagan stalked out of the hall when Republican rival George Christopher attacked him for opposing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But his press secretary, Lyn Nofziger, brought Reagan back later in the day for a reception with the delegates, and Reagan apologized for his walkout.

Even at this low point of his campaign, Reagan answered questions from reporters on an almost daily basis. He continued to do so after he won the Republican nomination and faced two-term Gov. Pat Brown in the general election.

By now it was the usually accessible Brown who was running a buttoned-down campaign; his managers were not eager to debate Reagan because they did not like the way Brown looked on television. The closest Reagan and Brown came to a debate was a joint appearance on "Meet the Press," an important venue then and now. This time, Reagan ignored Brown's attacks on him as "an enemy of the Mexican American people" and dominated the show. He won the governorship by nearly a million votes.

Schwarzenegger has more celebrity status in 2003 than Reagan did in 1966. He has Reagan-like assets of charm and enthusiasm, as well as what was then the principal Reagan liability: a belief by many voters that he lacks the qualifications to be governor. Schwarzenegger has fueled this skepticism by refusing to participate in any of the coming debates except for one in which the questions are given to the candidates in advance.

There is a disconnect between Schwarzenegger's campaign and his promises to do things differently in Sacramento. Although his television commercials and Web site present him as bold and innovative, he is evasive in his personal campaigning. This raises a question. If Schwarzenegger can't handle the give and take of debate or news conferences, how can he deal successfully with a recalcitrant Legislature?

Schwarzenegger's disengaged campaign also unnecessarily reinforces a negative stereotype of Hollywood. In the 1966 California campaign, Brown and his operatives used "actor" as a synonym for airhead and claimed that Reagan had been upstaged by a chimpanzee in the film "Bedtime for Bonzo." Reagan had the last laugh, but only after a campaign that connected with both the voters and the media.

Schwarzenegger's campaign strategy has the additional disadvantage of being at odds with his best-known movie role. Whatever else can be said of the Terminator, he never shrinks from conflict or danger. It's difficult to imagine the Terminator ducking a political debate with Cruz Bustamante.

Lou Cannon, a former Washington Post reporter, is author of "Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power" (PublicAffairs, 2003), his fifth book on Ronald Reagan.

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