Arnold vs. Bush

When the official mourning for Ronald Reagan ends, the party's two leading luminaries will leave the big tent and go back to their corners.

Published June 11, 2004 10:28PM (EDT)

In death as he did in life, Ronald Reagan has united the increasingly divergent wings of the Republican Party. The neocons who plotted George W. Bush's ill-fated Iraq adventure, religious conservatives drooling for a fight over indecency, abortion and gay marriage, the libertarian-minded fiscal conservatives and the Main Street moderates: This week, they're all mourning under one Big Tent.

But as Reagan makes his last trip back to California Friday night, the nation's two remaining best-known Republicans will once again go their separate ways. President Bush will be back in Washington, holding on tight to the hard right. And California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will be back in Sacramento, working deals with Indian tribes, labor unions and -- say it isn't so! -- Democrats as he wins the grudging admiration of even some voters inclined to see him more as a groper than a Gipper.

As president and governor, Bush and Schwarzenegger are reading from very different pages of the Ronald Reagan playbook. The question now, as the November election approaches: Will these star-power Republicans even be playing for the same team?

So far, at least, the answer appears to be no.

While Schwarzenegger certainly won't be campaigning for Sen. John Kerry, it's increasingly clear he won't play a major role in Bush-Cheney '04, either. Other Republican governors may clamor for face time with Bush, but Schwarzenegger has largely stayed away. When Bush visited California in March, Schwarzenegger steered clear of the president's public events, choosing to appear with him only at a private fundraiser. There are no Bush-Schwarzenegger appearances on the campaign schedule now, and it's not even clear whether Schwarzenegger will speak at the Republican National Convention.

Schwarzenegger aides say it's just a matter of scheduling. "The governor wants to be as helpful as he can given the constraints that California has a lot of issues that need to be addressed," Schwarzenegger's press secretary, Margita Thompson, told Salon this week. "The people of California elected him to get the state back on track, and he's been working on that with laser-like focus."

Still, if -- as the Los Angeles Times recently reported -- the Republican governors of Arkansas, Colorado, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, South Dakota and Texas have managed to find time to stump for Bush, it's fair to ask why Schwarzenegger hasn't been able to squeeze in an hour or two of campaigning for his president.

When Schwarzenegger was running for office last fall, religious conservatives warned the White House that it would lose a lot of born-again goodwill if Bush cozied up to the pro-choice playboy. By and large, Bush took the advice: Aside from saying Schwarzenegger would be a "good governor," Bush played no public role in the contentious California recall vote that put Schwarzenegger in the statehouse. Now the shoe may be on the other foot. With Bush alienating moderates with a slavish devotion to the far right and a stubborn resistance to admitting mistakes, Schwarzenegger -- whose approval ratings have soared with a more bipartisan approach to governance -- may see the advantage in remaining what one observer calls a "party of one."

"The biggest mistake all of us make is looking at Arnold through the lens of traditional politics," says Dan Schnur, a California-based Republican strategist. "Political hacks like us just assume that a Republican governor is going to spend a lot of time and energy working on behalf of a Republican president. But Arnold Schwarzenegger and George W. Bush might not need each other politically as much as you'd normally assume."

Schnur knows something about Republicans who are lukewarm on Bush; he served as communications director in the 2000 presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain. Schnur sees a parallel between Schwarzenegger and McCain; like former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Schwarzenegger and McCain have established for themselves an aura of political "independence" that makes them "the Republicans best equipped to reach out to swing voters."

But unlike Giuliani -- who has campaigned hard for Bush -- McCain and Schwarzenegger are still on the sidelines, serving as co-chairs of the Bush-Cheney campaigns in their respective states but doing little to help the cause. Indeed, when Reagan died last week, both McCain and Schwarzenegger made comments that seemed designed to put some space between the Reagan legacy and the Bush reality. On "Meet the Press," McCain drew a distinction between Reagan's friendship with House Speaker Tip O'Neill and the "bitter partisanship" of Washington today. Similarly, Schwarzenegger issued a statement in which he said that Reagan, as California governor, had "promoted bipartisan cooperation" and "embraced government's duty to protect our natural resources" -- characterizations that might apply to Schwarzenegger's first six months as governor but not to Bush's first three-and-a-half years as president.

While aides to Schwarzenegger and Bush both tried to wrap their bosses in Reagan's coattails this week, the governor and the president have taken starkly different approaches to both policy and politics. They both worship at the shrine of the tax cut -- within an hour of taking office, Schwarzenegger slashed California's car tax -- but Schwarzenegger is pro-choice, open to gun control and apparently interested in environmental protection; he appointed environmentalist Terry Tamminen to lead the California Environmental Protection Agency and vowed to defend California's nation-leading efforts to limit greenhouse gases from cars and trucks.

He is also interested -- maybe genuinely, maybe out of necessity -- in reaching across the political aisle. While the Bush administration takes a "you're with us or you're against us" approach to both foreign and domestic policy, Schwarzenegger has reached out -- sometimes with carrots, sometimes with sticks -- to interest groups and the Democrats who control the state Legislature.

And while Bush finds in the ghost of Reagan support for "staying the course" and never admitting error -- in announcing Reagan's death last week, Bush spoke of the "confidence" that "comes with conviction" -- Schwarzenegger seems to revel in flexibility and course-correction. In an insight as un-Bushian as you'll find in politics today, Schwarzenegger recently told the Sacramento Bee that it's "very important not to get stuck with certain principles, but to be able to be flexible." He said that governing should be based more on "what is going on in the real world ... than reading someone's book and sticking to that, and saying, 'This is the Bible, and I will never change from that point of view.'" In the same interview, Schwarzenegger said that "ideology and political philosophy, many times, falls apart in front of your very eyes when you go out there in the real world," and he acknowledged that some of the more conservative views he held earlier in life have proven to be wrong.

While you'll never hear George W. Bush make such a statement, veteran observers of California politics say that Schwarzenegger's approach to governing isn't entirely different than Reagan's. "Schwarzenegger is more like the real Reagan than the Reagan of legend," says Jack Pitney, a former Republican National Committee staffer who is now a government professor at California's Claremont McKenna College. "The real Reagan was a pragmatist and a compromiser in just the way Schwarzenegger is."

Not everyone is happy with the results. Democrats fumed this month when Schwarzenegger cut a deal with state university officials that involved redirecting students to community colleges and imposing big tuition increases in exchange for promises of more funding for the schools. Liberals were appalled when Schwarzenegger -- who at times has been quite supportive on gay rights issues -- falsely claimed that San Francisco's issuance of marriage licenses to gay couples had caused "riots" and suggested that people might be injured or killed as a result. Women's groups and others remain upset that Schwarzenegger reneged on his campaign promise to launch a full investigation into charges that he repeatedly harassed and abused women on movie sets and elsewhere in the years before he ran for governor.

But even the most liberal Democratic legislators seem to admire Schwarzenegger's ability to get things done. In just over six months in office, he has won voter approval of a controversial $15 billion bond issue and a spending cap and reached agreement with the Legislature on reform of the state workers' compensation program.

As a result, Schwarzenegger's approval ratings have climbed steadily since he was elected in the race that led to the recall of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis. According to a Field Poll released in late May, 65 percent of California voters approve of Schwarzenegger's job performance; Ronald Reagan's approval rating as governor never topped 60 percent.

What's more, at a time when the incumbent president inspires "unprecedented levels of polarization" among voters -- 89 percent of Republicans but only 12 percent of Democrats approve of Bush's job performance -- Schwarzenegger comes closer to bridging the partisan divide. According to the Field Poll, 89 percent of Republicans approve of Schwarzenegger's job performance -- but so too do 48 percent of California's Democrats and 58 percent of the state's nonpartisan voters.

With such bipartisan appeal, Schwarzenegger is "America's most precious free agent come October," says Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution and former aide to Calif. Gov. Pete Wilson. "The question is, how will he divide up his time?"

Schwarzenegger has already signaled that he'll help reelect legislators who work with him, and he may lend support to Republicans in California's congressional delegation. But even if he wants to, there's little Schwarzenegger can do for Bush in California. The state appears safely in the Kerry column, and if it suddenly comes into play, Schwarzenegger's help won't really be necessary; for California to swing Republican, the entire country would already have to be heading hard in that direction. Arnold or no Arnold, Bush would be poised to win reelection by a landslide.

Assuming that doesn't happen, the Bush-Cheney team will likely all but ignore California; it will be a source of campaign cash but not Electoral College votes. "I don't think there will be a serious campaign for president here," says Tony Quinn, the Republican co-editor of the California Target Book, a nonpartisan analysis of congressional and legislative races in the state.

Quinn and Whalen both say that Schwarzenegger could be useful to Bush in other Western states, particularly in Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico. "Arnold has something that translates in every state," Whalen said. "He can raise money and draw cameras."

But for Schwarzenegger's efforts outside California to be credible, they would have to be part of some greater Bush campaign effort to appeal to more moderate voters. Quinn, for one, doesn't see that happening. "They've made no particular overtures to the more libertarian and socially liberal voters because there isn't any way they can get them," he said.

If Schwarzenegger doesn't assume a larger role for Bush, Whalen said he may make time to campaign for more moderate Republicans elsewhere -- say, Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter -- in order to win federal financial support for California that he hasn't yet achieved from the Bush administration. "He needs to find new ways to put pressure on the federal government," Whalen said. "One of those ways is to collect IOUs and chits on the campaign trail. If he can go out and campaign for senators, he can do it with the unexpressed understanding that they will show their gratitude later."

Schwarzenegger has taken that approach with Bush, and he hasn't been subtle about it. In February, he said that he could help deliver California for Bush if Bush would help deliver federal funds to California. "If the federal government does great things for California this year," he said during an appearance on "Meet the Press," "President Bush can have California and be reelected."

Schwarzenegger wants help from Washington in immigration costs, military base closings and Medicare. Bush hasn't delivered, and Schwarzenegger seems ready to return the favor.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

MORE FROM Tim Grieve

Related Topics ------------------------------------------