On the darkest day for Republicans in decades, the GOP had one bright light: Arnold Schwarzenegger, who got more votes than any other candidate in his party on November 7 – and he did it in the bluest of blue states, a state dominated politically by Diane Feinstein, Barbara Boxer and Nancy Pelosi.
Does Schwarzenegger Republicanism provide a model for his party's recovery from Karl Rove? Arnold suggested as much in his election night victory speech at the Beverly Hilton, where he said the Republicans should follow what he modestly called "the California way."
At a time when the shrunken GOP is rapidly becoming the party of white southern evangelicals obsessed with homosexuality and abortion, Arnold poses a sunny alternative, with a progressive-looking program as strong and cheerful as he seems to be. In the last year he approved Democratic proposals for an increase in the state's minimum wage, along with a dramatic step to fight global warming. And he's not afraid to be a big spender – along with Democratic leaders, he sponsored a series of ballot propositions to undertake a massive rebuilding of the state's infrastructure, to construct new schools and freeways, and to repair levees so that Sacramento doesn't become the next New Orleans.
Schwarzenegger Republicanism shows how to win elections by co-opting a few key Democratic issues, not worrying about gay marriage or abortion rights, and appealing to the center. He ended up with 56 percent of the vote. CNN's exit poll showed that Arnold was the choice of almost 60 percent of California's independent voters and 58 percent of moderates. He got 22 percent of Democratic voters to vote for him. And his propositions all passed easily. If this works in California, where Diane Feinstein got 60 per cent of the vote in the same election, it could work even better in swing states and border states, where the Democrats are weaker to begin with.
Now that George Bush is finished, Arnold himself could lead in transforming the party – his star power draws huge enthusiastic crowds wherever he goes. "He could be the Republican's Bill Clinton," says Amy Wilentz, author of "I Feel Earthquakes More Often Than They Happen," a bestseller about California in the Age of Arnold.
But will the Republican Party learn the lessons of Arnold's appeal? It seems unlikely. Even in California, the rest of the statewide Republican ticket on election day consisted of the old style right-wing politicos – and despite Arnold's charisma at the head of the ticket, virtually all of them lost. Partly that's because the state is so gerrymandered that most Republican office holders never needed to appeal to Democratic voters and have no experience doing so.
On the national scene the situation is similar. The surviving Republicans in office owe their existence to their base – those same white southern evangelicals obsessed with prayer in school and guns everywhere else — and those Republicans are not about to betray their base.
There's one other big reason why Schwarzenegger doesn't represent the Republican future: Arnold himself has shown little interest in leading the party's transformation. It's true that he said in his election night speech that his victory was "proving to the nation that there is another way to go, a better path to solve problems." But in California he has done nothing to develop candidates in his image – which is one reason why the rest of the statewide Republican ticket lost.
On the national scene, he did speak at the party's 2004 convention in Madison Square Garden, but barely campaigned for Bush that year, and this year he didn't campaign for any Republican candidates in other states. Arnold campaigns for himself.
Finally, his image as a sunny strongman comes from his career as a movie star. That kind of charisma is missing from the rest of the Republicans, who dismiss Arnold's triumph as Hollywood glitz that can't be transferred to others in the GOP. They may be right about that.
So it appears that the Democrats don't need to worry. There's only one Schwarzenegger Republican in American politics. California is the exception that proves the rule; in the rest of the country, the Democrats have the center all to themselves.