Those several years in the last decade when actor Arnold Schwarzenegger was its Great Germanic Hope said more about the current state of California’s Republican Party than almost anything else that happened during his seven years in Sacramento.
The real meaning of Arnold: the GOP lacks credible candidates with intellectual substance whom it can run for major office here.
For quite awhile, Schwarzenegger, who did not bother to vote in the majority of elections over the six years before he became governor, was the hottest Republican commodity the GOP since Ronald Reagan.
Yes, some longtime California GOP political consultants reminded the Austrian-born thespian and his enthusiasts that Reagan’s political career was durable because it did not suddenly spring Athena-like from anyone’s mind, the way Schwarzenegger’s did.
“People forget that Reagan didn’t just appear out of thin air to run for governor against Pat Brown in 1966,” Dan Schnur, longtime press secretary to ex-Gov. Pete Wilson and now director of a politics institute at USC, recalled at the time.
Schnur added Schwarzenegger’s appeal within the state Republican Party, despite the fact he didn’t share many of its convictions, said more about the GOP than about anything or anyone else, including the muscleman himself, who has now returned to acting. He was right.
But Schwarzenegger was unique. What happened to Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain during the fall shows how remarkable it was that Schwarzenegger not only survived, but even took a large plurality of the female vote after his womanizing was exposed – and never denied – in the weeks and days before the 2003 Gray Davis recall election. It wasn’t until he was out of office that philandering cost him much of anything, and then it ended his marriage, but exacted no political price.
One magazine story titled “Arnold the Barbarian” (a play on his movie title role as “Conan the Barbarian”) made it plain as early as 2002 that reporters would look into all aspects of his life, and they finally found something solid after he left office – an out-of-wedlock child conceived with his family’s housekeeper.
Schwarzenegger never really had much sense of irony. That became plain in late 2002, when he telephoned a columnist who had observed that California needed a new Patton in Sacramento. “That’s a really good line,” he said, perhaps unaware that complimenting the World War II general in his thick Germanic accent might seem inappropriate to some.
That call spurred even more enthusiasm among Californian Republicans, who have lost almost all statewide elections since 1994, than they’ve shown for any candidate since. They’ll be even more irrelevant in Sacramento in 2012 than before, with current Gov. Jerry Brown indicating he may not even consult the minority party in budget negotiations.
The fact that party officials and voters in general could be so moved by Schwarzenegger’s ephemeral and chimerical personality spoke volumes. It demonstrated the GOP would grasp at almost any straw as it desperately sought to win.
No doubt the party would do it again today, if another Schwarzenegger lurked in the political weeds. For as it heads into an election year, the GOP has seen absolutely no credible candidates rise up to oppose U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s reelection, not even a fabulously wealthy candidate like those the party has recently fielded, people like financier Bill Simon, its nominee for governor in 2002, and Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina, the twinned businesswomen it turned to for its top slots last year.
Not even record-level spending by Whitman in her campaign against Democrat Jerry Brown could make her truly competitive for governor, as all too often she had a deer-in-the-headlights demeanor.
Sadly for the GOP, no new billionaires show the stomach for a big-money run just now, and at this writing no one in the fabulously wealthy class is making any noises about trying for governor in 2014, either.
Without such candidates – and Schwarzenegger was an almost unique combination of celebrity and personal wealth – a party usually turns to its bench, people who have held secondary statewide offices like controller and lieutenant governor or been big city mayors, like ex-Gov. Pete Wilson, once top gun in San Diego.
But the GOP has no bench; it lost every statewide race last year and the only one it won four years earlier was Schwarzenegger’s own reelection.
Next in line might be members of Congress, but with the House under Republican control, the party’s best-heeled and best-known politicos there are loath to give up their leadership positions.
So where does the GOP turn? Who knows, now that there’s no Schwarzenegger available for a bailout?
Which means California can expect its years of Democratic domination to build on themselves – and that’s the true meaning of the Schwarzenegger boom, which highlighted better than almost anything else the deep weakness of the party he identified with. He did little for California during his time as governor and less for his party, now in a sad-sack condition.