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The California Party

Schwarzenegger's popularity entices and enrages Republicans. Could his policies translate nationally?

March 25, 2007

GOV. ARNOLD Schwarzenegger presents members of the Republican conservatocracy with a dilemma: They love his popularity. But they hate how he got it.

So what's a right-wing pundit to do? Rush Limbaugh, for one, says he still likes the guy but that, as a conservative, Schwarzenegger is a sellout (this after the governor told NBC's "Today" show that Limbaugh was "irrelevant"). Meanwhile, conservative Democrat Tammy Bruce, who served on the governor's transition team, told Fox News' Bill O'Reilly that Schwarzenegger "in his heart" remains a conservative but may be unduly influenced by his wife, "hard-core leftist" Maria Shriver.

The governor's supposed betrayal of his beliefs is apparently manifested in a host of centrist actions and statements over the last 18 months. He bypassed state GOP lawmakers to broker prescription drug discounts. He courted environmentalists to craft a law to cut greenhouse gas emissions. He declared an era of "post-partisanship."

But Republicans needn't worry too much. First, Schwarzenegger's sheen may be in for a bit of dulling soon. His plan for universal health coverage has failed to win a legislative author, and bad revenue news may make his rosy budget plan hard to keep intact. Second, the governor's popularity will be contained to California. As a foreign-born citizen, Schwarzenegger cannot run for president unless the Constitution is amended -- an amendment we wholeheartedly support. So the best (or is it the worst?) that Republicans can hope for is that the Schwarzenegger way will catch on.

That way, such as it is, may be unique to Schwarzenegger -- or at least to California politics. Schwarzenegger's post-partisanship can be read as tapping into a deep-seated streak of political independence. There is a precedent for it in this state, in centrist Republicans such as Earl Warren and Goodwin Knight.

But one really need look no further than Ronald Reagan, the man to whom Limbaugh and other commentators look wistfully as a model of conservatism. Of course, as president he was more conservative, but as governor, Reagan was a moderate who was not averse to raising taxes and preserving abortion rights.

Schwarzenegger's strategy, like Reagan's, is appealing in part because of its simplicity: Promote business, rebuild the state, preserve the environment, be fiscally prudent. All are principles with which California's successful Republican governors of the last century would have been familiar. Regardless of whether they would survive the transition to the national stage -- and whether the national Republican Party would want them too -- they have worked well for California.

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