It’s been a week since Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger named Democratic operative, abortion rights activist and former Gray Davis aide Susan Kennedy as his new chief of staff, and Republican fury is unabated.
Republican leaders in the state Senate and Assembly have criticized the choice; California Republican Party Chairman Duf Sundheim has scheduled a closed-door meeting with the Governor next week to express his concerns — most notably, that a Democrat would be privy to confidential Republican strategies next year as the Governor runs for re-election.
But Sundheim’s worries may be premature. Rumors are beginning to swirl that Governor Schwarzenegger might abandon the Republican Party and seek re-election as an independent. Prominent California political consultant Dan Schnur, a former adviser to Governor Pete Wilson and to Senator John McCain, encouraged the gambit, writing in the December 6 Los Angeles Times that, “If Schwarzenegger is truly an independent, who supports Republican positions on some issues and Democratic positions on others, maybe his reelection campaign would be a good time to come out and say it.”
Many Republicans couldn’t agree more. They have noted Schwarzenegger’s apparent reluctance even to be associated with them. Last week, when the Republican Governors were meeting in Carlsbad, California, the Governor refused to be seen publicly with them; he has shunned President Bush on his last two visits to the state.
And although California Republicans appreciate Governor Schwarzenegger’s commitment to holding down taxes and his refusal to provide illegal immigrants with drivers’ licenses, the appointment of Susan Kennedy has created legitimate apprehension that the Governor may seek to salvage an agenda — any agenda — by, in effect, capitulating to the Democrats. If that’s to be the Governor’s course, Republicans are understandably reluctant to deploy any more of their fundraising or grassroots assets on his behalf.
In fact, a decision to run as an independent may hurt no one so much as the governor himself. Even if he is able to eke out a re-election victory, he will have to find a way to govern without any partisan backing — bereft of any organized statewide or organizational support, and without a “team” of legislators that is willing to support even politically difficult decisions for the sake of party loyalty. As an independent, the Governor would have to forge ad-hoc coalitions constantly (and often in opposition to both parties) in order to enact an agenda.
During his first run for Governor and immediately thereafter, given his white-hot charisma and widespread public support, Schwarzenegger might actually have succeeded as an independent — when he could credibly threaten to go over legislators’ heads to communicate with the voters who so obviously supported him. Thanks to the Democrats’ often-dishonest attack ads during the special election campaign, however, his public support has eroded; Democrats know they need not fear his political power. And if he chooses to leave the Republican Party, its members will likewise be at liberty to criticize him without constraint.
Rather than seeking to revive his political fortunes — and those of the Republican Party as a whole — through incremental but principled measures, like continuing to oppose giveaways to government employees and drivers’ licenses for illegal immigrants, Schwarzenegger has apparently decided to forge a new political identity. Whether his makeover will include actually leaving the Republican Party remains unclear.
But one thing is certain. The sad truth is that in California’s current political climate, no Republican gubernatorial candidate but Schwarzenegger can defeat a Democrat in a head-to-head matchup. An independent Schwarzenegger in a three-way race, however, might attract enough Democratic support to allow 40% of California — the conservative base — to elect one of its own. How ironic: By leaving the party and choosing to run as an independent, Arnold Schwarzenegger might do Republicans the greatest favor of all.
Carol Platt Liebau is an attorney, political analyst and radio talk-show host. Her blog is at www.carolliebau.blogspot.com.