The L.A. Times marked the 10th anniversary of the Gray Davis recall by running a piece observing that Arnold Schwarzenegger had failed to rescue the California Republican Party. Given what Ahnolt actually did to the California GOP, this is a bit like observing that the iceberg failed to rescue the Titanic.
A recurring theme of liberal orthodoxy is that Golden State Republicans are in dire straits because they are too conservative and have alienated moderate voters. An interesting point – but unsubstantiated by the historical record. The GOP was certainly not robust in 2003 when Schwarzenegger was elected to be the leader of the party. But when Ahnolt left office in 2010 the party was in a shambles, worse off by every measure than it was when he took the helm. Schwarzenegger was the public face and voice of the GOP for 7 years, yet somehow accrues no blame for the fate of the party during those years.
Despite the illogic of the reasoning, moderate Republicans and the media blame conservatives for the GOP wreckage Schwarzenegger left. The reality is that conservatives had nothing to do with it. Let’s review a few facts.
Upon his election as Governor Ahnolt became not just the only Republican to hold statewide office, but by an exponential number the best known Republican in the state. He was the only California Republican known to many. To most Californians Schwarzenegger was the Republican Party in California and vice-versa.
Liberals argue that it was the conservative planks of the state party platform or conservatives in the legislature which soured the public’s view of the GOP. Balderdash.
Not a thousand people in the state know that the parties even have platforms let alone know any of the planks. Republican leaders in the legislature, conservative or otherwise, had the same name I.D. among Californians as the President of Upper Volta (H.E. Maurice Yameogo, by the way).
The platform and legislative leaders had miniscule impact on the public’s view of the GOP. There was one and only one California Republican known to most voters from 2004 – 2011 – Arnold Schwarzenegger. There was one and only one shaper of public opinion about the California Republican Party – Arnold Schwarzenegger.
His 2003 recall campaign was run well to the right of center, in part to fend off the challenge of Tom McClintock and in part as recognition that the state’s political center of gravity was right of center. Remember, he and McClintock received 61% of the vote between them. He was going to “cut up the state’s credit card”, “blow up the boxes”, and bring a broom to Sacramento to make a “clean sweep”. It turned out that his promises were as phony as his tan.
After a well-intentioned but inept campaign to pass reform initiatives in 2005 Schwarzenegger pirouetted to the left and never looked back. The defeat of his initiatives exposed Ahnolt’s political glass jaw and gargantuan (for UCLA graduates that means really big) ego. He lost his will to fight, becoming a political girlie man. He spent the next five years preening and posing, a faithful servant of the left, as desperate for the approval of the Democrats and media as he had been for that of judges at body building competitions.
He also spent his last five years as Governor ignoring the Republican Party and openly hostile to conservative ideas. As he said in the recent piece in the Times, building the GOP was “nowhere” on his list of things he wanted to accomplish. He needn’t worry. Far from building the party he was an active agent in destroying its infrastructure and its credibility with voters.
His last term as Governor was spent repudiating his years-long pledge not to raise taxes and pandering to the most extreme elements of the wacko-environmental fringe. He drove thousands of businesses and hundreds of thousands of middle class Californians out of the state. Doing all this as a Republican he was also poisoning the public record and image of the Republican Party. He was a busy guy. As Crazy Horse (the band, not the Indian) observed, rust never sleeps.
When he departed Sacramento the state was a basket case. Budgets were unbalanced for years, our credit rating was at banana republic status, taxes were among the highest in the nation yet we have hundreds of billions of dollars in unfunded liabilities facing future taxpayers. Such are the fruits of unchecked liberalism, which on balance is exactly what the Schwarzenegger years in Sacramento represented.
Not surprisingly Ahnolt left office with record low approval ratings. Also not surprisingly the state GOP’s rating dropped in tandem with his. The public knew no other California Republican. As far as they knew Schwarzenegger and his actions were the persona, policies, heart and soul of the Republican Party. Conservatives had no meaningful statewide voice, presence or visibility during his tenure.
So don’t try to place the blame for a weakened state GOP on conservative office holders and positions the public didn’t know existed. Arnold the Destroyer left both his state and his party in shambles. He has moved on to his next role, but his state and his party continue to suffer because of the mendacity and venality of his time as Governor.
(William E. Saracino is a member of the California Political Review editorial board. Originally published on California Political Review.)