Almost one year after they elected Arnold Schwarzenegger, most Californians know he repealed an increase in their car tax and that he passed a budget without raising taxes. They know he reversed a decision by his predecessor that granted driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. And they know he can lift buildings off the ground, or at least they think he can.
Schwarzenegger's celebrity is still a major source of attention and goodwill, of course, but for most California voters, the shock and excitement of electing another actor-turned-governor has largely worn off. The rest of the country, on the other hand, doesn't watch him daily. Other than his "girlie men" castigation of legislators who were unwilling to vote for his budget earlier this summer, most non-Californians have heard little of him since his election.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 29, 2004 Home Edition Opinion Part M Page 5 Editorial Pages Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
Arnold Schwarzenegger -- A Commentary article on Thursday stated that the 23rd Amendment would have to be changed to allow a foreign-born citizen to become president of the United States. It is Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution that would have to be altered to allow naturalized citizens to be president.
Somewhat unfairly for a governor who gets good marks from his colleagues for taking his responsibilities seriously, Schwarzenegger's reputation east of the Sierras is still very much the caricature it was during the early days of the recall campaign, when East Coast pontificators lumped him in with Larry Flynt and Gary Coleman as an example of all that was wrong with California politics.
But next week's Republican National Convention gives Schwarzenegger the chance to redefine himself to a national audience. After years of seeing him in front of exploding vehicles in movie trailers, most Americans will see him as a working politician for the first time when he speaks at the convention.
The Bush/Cheney campaign hopes that Schwarzenegger will team with fellow centrists Rudy Giuliani and John McCain to build support for President Bush among moderate and undecided voters. And Schwarzenegger will certainly oblige them by singing the praises of the president and making the case for his reelection. (Don't expect to hear Maria Shriver's husband say one word against Bush's Democratic challenger. It's likely that a voter emerging from the wilderness to watch Schwarzenegger's address could be excused for assuming that his in-laws' party had not fielded a candidate in this election.)
But Schwarzenegger has another convention mission that's just as important: This is his chance to show the nation that he is more than just a weightlifting cartoon character or a make-believe action hero. He may be the strongest policy wonk in the room, but he's a wonk just the same. And his speech will be designed to make sure that he's taken seriously on a national stage from this point forward.
Schwarzenegger is smart enough to know that the audience is not tuning in to hear a talk about workers' compensation reform and deficit reduction bonds. And the governor and his advisors have long since figured out how to leverage his celebrity status to support his political goals. So there will be enough bodybuilding and movie jokes to bring the crowd into the tent, but once it's inside, it will hear a governor eager to explain his policy accomplishments.
Most politicians given this type of opportunity at a national convention are laying the groundwork for a presidential campaign. Because Schwarzenegger was not born in this country, that course isn't an option for him, at least as long as the 23rd Amendment stands. So what good is a national profile for a politician who can't seek national office?
Political insiders have been speculating about Schwarzenegger's designs on the White House for years. But that's imposing our worldview on someone who sees politics, and the world around it, in a different way than we do. I suspect we may just be the millennial version of the weight-room gang in the 1970s that couldn't imagine anything in Schwarzenegger's future beyond another bodybuilding championship, or the movie industry moguls who assumed his greatest accomplishment might be becoming box-office king.
Schwarzenegger is ambitious enough to want something else beyond the state Capitol. But there's no reason to assume that goal is another elected office, presidential or otherwise. Perhaps it is something less tangible. At every step of his career, it seems, an integral part of Schwarzenegger's success has been the recognition that has accompanied it.
Next week's convention will put him back in the spotlight on a worldwide stage for the first time since he took office. And for Schwarzenegger, it's not really success until the whole world knows it.