The ‘Kennedy Factor’

The ‘Kennedy Factor’

Arnold Schwarzenegger has sold himself to his fans as a raging Republican Terminator.


Arnold Schwarzenegger has sold himself to his fans as a raging Republican Terminator. But his future will depend on the outcome of a battle for his soul between the Republican Party and the liberal Democratic Kennedy culture he shares by marriage. So far, the Republican allegiance is dominant. But the “Kennedy factor” could turn him into a Terminator with a stubborn liberal streak.

Why is Schwarzenegger a Republican anyway? He disagrees with mainstream Republicans on abortion rights, gay rights and the Clinton impeachment. He didn’t go to the last Republican convention. He rightly suspects that the Bush White House was divided about his candidacy, with some favoring Condoleezza Rice as the successor to Gray Davis.

The answer is that Arnold emerged as an ambitious bodybuilder in a European social-democratic culture that he felt was too small for him. He broke away and immigrated to the America of Richard Nixon. The bodybuilder liked what he heard and began calling himself a Republican. It seemed simple, but then he met Maria Shriver, a liberal Democrat who was genetically unable to marry a real Republican.

That was two decades ago. Maria helped immerse Arnold in the worlds of the Special Olympics, early childhood education, women’s rights and environmentalism. Arnold might be unable to acknowledge publicly that the Kennedys changed his outlook, but his actual sensibility was becoming more Democratic. The result was a political, and perhaps personal, schizophrenia, illustrated most clearly in Arnold’s one political achievement before being elected governor: the after-school initiative he sponsored, and voters supported, in 2002. On the one hand, it was a much-needed half-billion-dollar program providing after-school activities for thousands of at-risk kids, especially from the inner city. But it was not exactly out of the Republican playbook. On the other hand, the measure stipulates that funding is triggered only when a budget surplus exists. So, because of Republican ideology, not a single child has benefited from Arnold’s after-school program and, given the structural deficit in Sacramento, it will be years before any do.

Take another example. California environmentalists like myself fell off our chairs upon reading Arnold’s official environmental platform: Preserving California’s tough environmental laws, implementing the Sierra Nevada Accord, preventing offshore drilling and defending the state’s mandate to address global warming by reducing emissions. It was a better platform than anything since Al Gore. Of course it was, because Robert Kennedy Jr., perhaps the country’s best-known environmental lawyer, had a hand in writing it. Arnold visited Hyannis Port in July for ten days, where he engaged in several long conversations with Kennedy. He wanted to be the best environmental governor in history, Arnold said. Kennedy would not endorse him but encouraged Arnold to seek serious environmental advisers like Terry Tamminen, former director of the Santa Monica Baykeeper, a respected watchdog group. There were others involved too, like Arnold supporter Bonnie Reiss, a Hollywood-connected founder of an environmental mass communication group. Arnold won’t be able to keep his environmental promises without firm state regulation of timber, oil, mining and other polluting industries, and major investments in restoration, none of which fit his GOP antiregulatory rhetoric.

It seems clear that while white male voters were overwhelmingly for Arnold, they were not enough for victory without the legitimizing power of Maria Shriver and her “Kennedy factor” among Democratic and independent voters. It is wishful Republican thinking that all those Democrats for Arnold were part of a permanent political realignment, when they were voting for a seemingly independent candidate blessed by the Kennedys against alternatives that suggested only the status quo. Shriver played an indispensable role when Arnold was staggered by attacks from the Los Angeles Times and feminist groups. The couple’s connections throughout Hollywood, not exactly a fortress of the Republican right, also helped save Arnold’s credibility.

The battle for Arnold’s soul will not be over soon, especially in a state that is decidedly Democratic. Unlike New York, where Governor Pataki can discount liberals in hopes of an appointment from George W. Bush, Arnold is likely to be concerned about re-election and legacy. It is not likely that he will consistently disrespect his wife’s heritage, and if he does, he could be sued by Robert Kennedy’s organization, the Natural Resources Defense Council. The first test may be his environmental appointments. Countless other tests, like death-penalty absolutism, lie just ahead. In the longer run, Arnold may have to decide whether the two-party system, like the Europe he left behind, is too small for his dreams.

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