Political Hay

Center-Left Republicanism’s Collapse

Schwarzenegger's messageless moderation isn't selling.

By 4.29.05

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In an interview with a German newspaper late last year, Arnold Schwarzenegger urged the GOP to adopt more liberal stances, identifying that as the key to a winning political formula. "The Republican party currently covers only the spectrum from the right wing to the middle, and the Democratic party covers the spectrum from the left to the middle," the newspaper quoted him as saying. "I would like the Republican Party to cross this line, move a little further left and place more weight on the center. This would immediately give the party 5% more votes without it losing anything elsewhere."

But Schwarzenegger's theory of a successful center-left GOP is running aground in California. On many issues Schwarzenegger has governed exactly like a center-left Democrat, the most egregious example being his drive to use billions of taxpayer dollars to clone embryos for experimentation. According to his strategic theory, this amorphous Republicanism that swirls somewhere around the political middle should make it easy for him to collect supporters from that vast and ignored pool of moderate Democrats and Independents.

Is that happening? Not if his slumping polls numbers are any indication. The California press are reporting that his poll numbers look as anemic as Gray Davis's. Only 40 percent of Californians, according to a survey by the Public Policy Institute of California, approve of his job performance, and half of Californians think he is doing his job poorly.

The numbers suggest that California Democrats (including the moderate ones he was suppose to poach so easily) are, instead of happily gnawing on the liberal bones Schwarzenneger has shared with them, growling for larger and larger portions and enlarging their pack. Schwarzenegger's centrism, in other words, is not neutralizing the Democrats but galvanizing them, signaling to them a weakness that they can exploit.

They have been able to control the premises of the debate against him, knowing that his center-left Republicanism is basically a passive, defensive posture which says: I want to finance everything you Democrats do but just a little slower, a little more responsibly. Spending battles will not be won under that wavering flag, especially in a state where almost every media outlet is in the tank for the Democrats and portray even the tiniest cut as draconian.

These media outlets are now busily attributing his slumping numbers not to the hesitancy of his agenda -- that he is getting mired in feckless, me-too debates with Democrats -- but to the few elements of conservative reform in it, as if he would be enjoying skyrocketing popularity if he surrendered to the Democrats completely on matters like education spending. To cement this idea as the conventional wisdom, journalists are quoting Democrats who voted for Schwarzenegger but are now terribly disappointed in him.

"I'm a Democrat who voted for Schwarzenegger," Wendy Bokota said to the Los Angeles Times. "Like everybody else, I voted without being really informed about the issues. I believed people when they said Gray Davis really was causing problems. I thought Schwarzenegger had the ability to make change -- and he does, but he's trying to do it on the backs of education."

Quotes like this underscore the hopeless task center-left Republicanism seeks to pursue -- trying to appease unappeasable voters. Ever time it tries to quench their appetite it just gets larger. On Wednesday Schwarzenegger accepted the resignation of his secretary of education, Richard Riordan, once the Golden State's premier Republican In Name Only. Riordan was being eaten alive by hack teachers, the fiercest, most benefit-conscious ones in America. He has been reeling ever since he bizarrely informed a 6-year-old girl named Isis last summer that her name meant "dirty, stupid girl" -- an offense less appalling to the unions than the very mild reforms he suggested.

"This is part of cleaning house," Barbara O'Connor, a political communications professor at California State University Sacramento, said to the San Francisco Chronicle. "The poll numbers show that [Schwarzenegger] has clearly alienated large segments of his base."

Notice her reference to "his base," implying that it is essentially liberal. Might the problem be that he has tried to stretch his base so wide he doesn't even have one?

In looking for a base around the political middle that doesn't exist, Schwarzenegger is finding himself standing alone, unable to advance an agenda without energized Republicans to lend a hand. His blithe prediction that the party can move "left" and gain "5% more votes without it losing anything elsewhere" is being put to the test in California and so far it has failed.

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About the Author
George Neumayr, a contributing editor to The American Spectator, is co-author, with Phyllis Schlafly, of the new book, No Higher Power: Obama's War on Religious Freedom.