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True Lies

The Schwarzenegger model of success isn't coming to Washington any time soon.

11:00 PM, Nov 19, 2006 • By BILL WHALEN
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STAR BILLING it's not: it's page 102 of the December edition of Men's Journal magazine, to be exact, where Arnold Schwarzenegger expounds on life and politics. California's governor admits that he's gained a girlymanish eight pounds since moving to Sacramento three years ago. Otherwise, the interview is notable for what it doesn't perpetuate: namely, a growing myth that Arnold's brand of bipartisanship can work in Washington.

In the aftermath of last week's election, the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal (and a ream of newspapers inside the Golden State) all have suggested that the Schwarzenegger script for success--a Republican governor who overcame adversity by admitting humility and working with a Democratic legislature--is a model for the Bush White House and the Pelosi-led Congress to emulate.

Arnold himself has given the bandwagon a couple of shoves. On Election Night, he urged the country to follow "the California way" and immodestly declared: "We are proving to the nation that there is another way to go, a better path to solve problems." A couple of days later, while on a trade mission to Mexico, Arnold told reporters that "the people have spoken all over the United States, and I think they have sent a very clear message . . . they want bipartisanship," which the Governator defined as "what we've done in California."

Granted, Schwarzenegger's re-election last week is the stuff of big-tent dreams. In coasting to a 17 percent victory, exit polls gave Arnold 27 percent of the black vote, 39 percent of Latinos and 62 percent of Asians. Schwarzenegger won among all education groups except high school drop-outs and all income groups except those below $30,000. As for party affiliation, Arnold held on to 93 percent of the Republican vote, picked off 22 percent of the Democratic vote, and dominated the middle (59 percent among independents).

But when it comes to bridging the partisan divide in Washington, is it as simple as picking up Sacramento's moving parts and exporting them east?

Not really. And here are a few reasons why:

1. The Republican Executive. Good-government types view bipartisanship as two ideologies advancing from their respective goal lines to the 50-yard stripe for a group hug and photo-op. George W. Bush is a "goal line" Republican in that he's decidedly conservative on most every issue under the sun, save federal spending. It's a long drive to midfield. Arnold's the opposite. He runs to the right on crime and taxes; otherwise, he's a social progressive. When the issue at hand is the environment--building a hydrogen highway, dealing with global warming--Schwarzenegger's already at the Republican 45-yard line, if not already well inside Democratic territory. So it's not much of a "compromise"--at least, not in the way the media like to portray it: a lockstep Republican having a sudden epiphany of centrist sanity.

2. The Democratic Legislators. George W. Bush has never visited San Francisco during his presidency; there is no Armani store in Crawford, Texas. What, then, do the president and the incoming House Speaker have in common? Very little. Then again, the Democratic Congress and the Democratic legislature in Sacramento also have their differences. Congress could change hands as soon as 2008. But in Sacramento, Democrats control nearly two-thirds of both legislative chambers, which may not go Republican in this lifetime. This much is certain: Nancy Pelosi will be under constant pressure over the next years. The media will look for good-government results, forcing her to the middle; Democratic activists (the angry blogosphere) and the big donor base (insistent unions) will try to push her to the left. No such pressure exists in Sacramento. Despite a historically low approval rating and Arnold's 17-point victory, Democrats lost all of one seat in the entire legislature last week. Thanks to political gerrymandering, lawmakers could work with Arnold or just as easily stiff him and neither course will much affect the outcomes of California's pre-decided elections.

3. The Power Behind the Throne. Arnold's most influential advisor is, of course, California First Lady Maria Shriver. You know her story. After that, the First Couple relies on Democratic chiefs of staff. Arnold's Republican influence is peripheral. That includes campaign advisors that come and go (many now talking to presidential hopefuls), plus random calls to the likes of George Shultz and Warren Buffett. No Democrat plays a prominent role in the current Bush White House, and, god willing, there won't be a repeat of failed attempts at a more "balanced" approach to governance, as when the Clinton White House brought David Gergen on board back in its early days.

4. Party Building. President Bush stumped nationwide for GOP candidates, just as Nancy Pelosi did for Democrats. That's what leaders do--they try to tilt the political balance to their party's advantage. Although he did invest in GOP "get out the vote" efforts such as mailers and phone banks, the Governator carefully avoided most chances to appear in public with other Republican hopefuls. Shortly before the election, at a campaign stop in Stockton, Schwarzenegger was asked if he supported the soon-to-be-ousted Richard Pombo. Arnold's response: "That is a federal issue." It was a major departure from the November 2004 election, when he stumped up and down the state for GOP candidates. Schwarzenegger didn't even deign to record "robo" phone messages for Republican candidates (even Clint Eastwood did one for the incumbent California Secretary of State). Arnold campaigned for himself and his five bond measures, all five of which passed. Republicans didn't fare so well, losing five of the six statewide offices.

5. Media Climate. George H.W. Bush didn't flat-out accuse the media of bias when he was president, but he liked to joke that if he walked on water, the next day's headline would read: "Bush Can't Swim". His son has it even worse--though, in fairness, some of it is self-inflicted. Media bias is not a problem for Arnold Schwarzenegger--reporters like him; he's good copy. In last fall's special election, Arnold got bad reviews when he campaigned for conservative-oriented ideas (spending controls, paycheck protection). Not surprisingly, since Arnold went left of center, supporting ideas and concepts the media like (minimum-wage boost, global warming, pot shots at the Bush presidency) it's been all thumbs-up. If you think personality doesn't matter, suppose what would happen if George W. Bush did as Arnold and signed a global-warming bill. The coverage with be chock full of words like "pander," "concede," "capitulate."

The bottom line: bipartisanship works in California because, for all its glitz and glamour, it's a zero-sum game in terms of lasting political effect. Democrats decided to work with a popular Republican governor only after they realized his popularity didn't threaten their control of the Legislature. Schwarzenegger has twice swept his way to victory, yet he's likely to leave office having done little to transform California's political landscape. Unlike the 1980s, when "Alex P. Keaton" Republicans emerged (first-time voters who registered GOP because it seemed the trendy thing to do), there is no similar ripple effect in California. Two Schwarzenegger landslides have not resulted in a land rush toward the California Republican Party.

If anything, California's vaunted bipartisanship will soon be put to the test--make that, a series of tests. The state faces a $5 billion deficit. A strong economy may produce enough revenue to fill the hole, which is what happened this year. If not, the choices are spending cuts or higher taxes. Both the governor and the Legislature want to enact healthcare reform, yet neither side can agree on its scope or the means of financing. Other headaches loom: overcrowded prisons and overflowing pension costs being but two problems that were conveniently sidestepped this past year.

Can bipartisanship continue to reign supreme? Time will tell which climate is the real California: a summer of love or a winter of discontent.

Bill Whalen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he follows California and national politics.