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Schwarzenegger Republicanism Won't Save the GOP

There’s an astounding scope to the Republican Party’s disarray following the historic election of Barack Obama to the presidency.

The party’s remnant factions will be debating the future direction of the GOP for some time, but one thing is clear: there’s a tremendous yearning on the Republican right for a return to bedrock conservative principles. As the American Spectator’s Robert Stacy McCain wrote in the aftermath:

Perhaps the most important statistic for conservatives to keep in mind today … is this: 53 percent of Republican primary voters did not vote for John McCain. …

Conservatives who sought to prevent McCain’s nomination cannot be blamed for his defeat. And it is his defeat, not yours.

Perhaps not, but some leading movement conservatives are cautioning against a hard right correction in any case. Rich Lowry perhaps said it best in a recent Washington Post op-ed:

Even in unimaginably challenging conditions for Republicans, the ideological composition of the election was essentially unchanged from 2004. Only 22 percent of voters identified themselves as liberals. The rest were moderates or conservatives.

It is indeed, as conservatives have been insisting in recent days, a center-right country. The question is how to appeal to the center again.

This is pretty much the shape of the pending battle across the trenches of the American right. The coming Obama administration is still two months from the inauguration, so Republicans are getting an early start on strategies for a path back from the wilderness.

In thinking about the steps back to power, political scientist Marvin King offered a useful three-fold scenario in the Clarion-Ledger.He thinks the Republicans might focus on a “Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee” path back to power; they might seek a path in a “Grover Norquist/Club for Growth” agenda; or they might seek a route that “goes west” — that is, a move in the direction of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

King argues that a “Schwarzenegger Model” offers attractive possibilities for the GOP. The California governor transcends wrenching partisan battles on social policy and is a moderate on fiscal policy — a combination that forms a “Western post-partisanship” with a winning record in elections.

Recall that Governor Schwarzenegger joined John McCain on the campaign trail in Ohio during the final week of the election. Schwarzenegger’s “Arnold Classic International Fitness” bodybuilding competition is held in Columbus each spring, so perhaps McCain operatives were praying that the former Mr. Olympia could pull some big weight with voters in the Buckeye State. The governor also gave an early endorsement for McCain’s nomination campaign back in January, when the two stood together with Rudy Giuliani as the “Three Amigos” of GOP moderation and across-the-aisle bipartisanship.


McCain lost Ohio, of course, and now a week after the GOP’s defeat, Schwarzenegger is making headlines with his proposals for the future of the Republican Party. In fact, Schwarzenegger is at the center of two big, interrelated stories with tremendous implications for Republicans. First, Schwarzenegger has come out in defense of the street activists who have challenged the passage of California’s Proposition 8 in protest demonstrations since November 4. According to one Los Angeles Times report, Schwarzenegger has urged the protesters not to give up, and he’s quoted saying that if the California Supreme Court is willing to strike down the measure, then we might “move forward from there and again lead in that area.”

But Schwarzenegger’s also in the news for the broader statements he made on Sunday, November 9. According to a second story in the Los Angeles Times, Schwarzenegger is arguing that the Republican Party must abandon some of its core conservative foundations and embrace spending programs popular with the electorate: “I think the important thing for the Republican Party is now to also look at other issues that are very important for this country and not to get stuck in ideology.”

There’s a lot wrong with these recommendations. Note first that Governor Schwarzenegger has never been fully accepted by the California conservative establishment. He’s basically a social liberal, and he’s been attacked from the right as without backbone on budgetary politics and fiscal restraint. California’s chronic structural budget imbalances have gotten worse under the Schwarzenegger administration, and a California Field Poll in July found a tepid 31 percent approval rating for the governor’s performance. In an effort to stave off state bankruptcy for 2009, Schwarzenegger is currently proposing tax hikes (including a 1.5 percent increase in the sales tax) and cuts in education spending (which will hammer both middle class and disadvantaged constituencies).

There’s very little in the governor’s record to warm the hearts of conservatives searching for new ideas to fuel a resurgence, and that’s not even mentioning social policy. One of the most important results of the elections nationwide was the sweeping repudiation of same-sex marriage initiatives in several states; California, Florida, and Arizona all voted the initiative down. There are currently 30 state-level bans on gay-marriage on the books across the country. In Arkansas as well, voters approved a measure to prohibit adoption by unmarried couples, a law designed to prevent gay couples from raising children in the state.

One of the more noteworthy statistics in California’s “Yes on 8” campaign is that 70 percent of the state’s African American voters chose to preserve the traditional definition of marriage. The black vote was based on the time-honored moral values of the African American religious experience, as well as the feeling on the ground that an affluent white gay community in the state had little interest in the concerns of those in the black community. African Americans are worried about good jobs, good schools, and combating the remnants of racial discrimination many residents still endure. Thus, the GOP’s long-standing defense of traditional values shows tremendous promise among a demographic constituency that voted 95 percent for the Democratic presidential nominee.

The GOP’s values agenda could also be attractive to the Latino community, perhaps the most important voting constituency in the 2008 election. Barack Obama took 67 percent of the Latino vote nationally, and Latinos turned the tide for the Democrats in key states like Colorado, New Mexico, and Virginia. Yet just four years ago George W. Bush won 44 percent of the Latino vote nationally 69 percent in his home state of Texas. Some might forget that these voters are not automatically aligned with the Democrats, especially because of the party’s left-wing social agenda based on the philosophy of secular humanism.

Indeed, there is a large, faith-based conservative bloc of Latino voters that should be considered the baseline for winning back that constituency in upcoming elections. On questions of abortion, traditional marriage, education, and criminal justice, conservative policies might hold tremendous appeal for conservative Latino voters. And the GOP’s principled stand in favor of a moral and civil society should put the party in good stead in that community.

Thus, the “Schwarzenegger Model” of compromising core conservative principles on fiscal restraint and social policy is inherently dangerous for those looking to find a “middle way” back to power in the years ahead. Indeed, a Schwarzenegger approach could very well destroy the party by making a new third-party, conservative-libertarian movement entirely feasible. Instead, Republicans need to find an amalgamation of the Palin-Huckabee social forces and the Club for Growth economists that can provide a dependable path back from political exile in the coming years.