It has been less than a decade since Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger won the special election to recall and replace Gov. Gray Davis. Schwarzenegger finished nearly 1.5 million votes ahead of the second-place gubernatorial candidate, Democrat Cruz Bustamante. Schwarzenegger won the votes of 43 percent of women, 31 percent of Latinos, 42 percent of union members and 18 percent of Democrats, according to the CBS/Edison/Mitofksy poll. At the same time, Schwarzenegger won the great majority of Republican voters, who turned out in large numbers.
Three years later, he coasted to re-election in a bad year for Republicans, winning 56 percent of the vote, again pulling in nearly 1.5 million votes more than his Democratic opponent, Phil Angelides.
Those elections are not far in the past, but they certainly seem a lifetime away.
In 2010, Democrat Jerry Brown and the entire Democratic statewide ticket swept the Republicans, and the prospects for any kind of Republican victory at the state level seem remote.
These numbers from the not-so-distant past give some weight to the governor’s op-ed published in the Los Angeles Times on May 6, written only a little more than a year after he left office. Schwarzenegger challenged his fellow Republicans to “take down that small tent” and to stop using ideological tests to purify the party’s leadership ranks: “n the current climate, the extreme right wing of the party is targeting anyone who doesn’t meet its strict criteria.”
The former governor continued: “Some Republicans today aren’t even willing to have conversations about protecting the environment, investing in the infrastructure America needs or improving healthcare.”
Schwarzenegger then called on Republicans to become problem solvers rather than ideologues, citing Ronald Reagan’s willingness to double the gas tax to pay for highway improvements.
While he noted the recent decision of a few Republican candidates to become independents — a decision he said he would never make himself — the wider context for his piece was the expected defeat of Sen. Richard Lugar in the Indiana primary on May 8. Lugar’s sin? Being too willing to reach agreements with President Obama. (When it became apparent that Lugar had lost on Tuesday, Lugar accused his opponent, Richard Mourdock, of having an “unrelenting partisan mindset,” which Mourdock quickly dismissed.) In addition, the April summary of partisan registration by the California secretary of state showed a dramatic decline in the Republican “market share” between April 2008 and April 2012. While the Democratic percentage of registered voters held steady at 43.5 percent, Republican rolls fell from 32.8 percent to 30.3 percent.
There remains much debate about Schwarzenegger’s governorship and his inability to come to grips with the state’s budget crisis, but it is clear that he grasps the political formula California Republicans need to follow if they are going to make a comeback. Democratic campaigners hope Republicans won’t follow Schwarzenegger’s advice. In fact, in 2002, when Republicans were heading toward nominating former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, Schwarzenegger’s mentor and ally, to run against Gray Davis, the Davis campaign cleverly intervened in the Republican primary by running commercials that highlighted Riordan’s sometimes contradictory positions on abortion in order to weaken Riordan among Republicans. This strategy ultimately helped deny Riordan the Republican nomination and allowed Davis to defeat a weaker candidate. Only a year later, though, Davis faced Schwarzenegger, and the game was over.
So what was the political formula that empowered Riordan in Los Angeles and Schwarzenegger statewide? Both governed as old-fashioned moderate, business-oriented Republicans — libertarian on social issues and willing to live among, and work with, Democrats. Neither was particularly ideological, and both were very close to business. Both fought with public employee unions and Democratic office holders. But Riordan endorsed Bill Clinton for re-election in 1996, after working with Clinton to bring police officers to American cities. Riordan, who lives in Brentwood, on L.A.’s Westside, was quite popular with Jewish voters.
Both have big, accessible personalities, quirky at times, unpredictable and recognizable. On social issues, they were live-and-let-live, a fact that, as I suggested in my column last month in these pages, can make Republicans more acceptable to independent and otherwise-Democratic voters. On gay rights, for example, both were on the liberal side of the fence. One could never imagine Schwarzenegger letting his conservative base force him to lose a key gay advisor, as Mitt Romney did recently. For his part, Schwarzenegger could hardly ignore his own personal shortcomings and communicated that he would be the last person on earth to judge anybody else’s personal life. Both he and Riordan were not afraid to surround themselves with active Democrats in both staff and advisory positions, while continuing to fight with Democrats on a number of issues.
Riordan was much like other moderate Republican mayors, such as New York City’s Michael Bloomberg. Schwarzenegger took this model statewide, no mean achievement.
Flexibility was Schwarzenegger’s biggest political asset. He publically admitted that he had voted for Proposition 187, the highly controversial 1994 ballot measure to deny public services to undocumented residents. But just in time for his 2006 re-election, he announced that he considered that vote to have been a mistake. He picked a foolish fight with unions over his 2005 ballot measures, all of which went down to massive defeat, then rebounded by signing a historic global-warming act in early 2006 that put California in the forefront of the nation’s environmental policies. He signed up a moderate, gay Democrat as his chief of staff. And he coasted to re-election.
Like most things in politics, the Democratic hold on California is not set in concrete. Until recent years, Republicans were more likely than Democrats to win statewide office, especially the governorship. Riordan and Schwarzenegger both did well with groups Republicans have struggled to win, including women, Latinos, and Jews. Obviously, it would not be impossible for another Republican to do the same.
Schwarzenegger’s advice that crossing the aisle is necessary is sound. It may be counter-intuitive, but you can’t defeat Democrats at the ballot box by refusing to work with them in the statehouse. At least in California, Republicans with a pro-business orientation that is appealing to the voters must also let up on the social issues and work with Democrats to craft solutions to real problems. The bottom line is that it is always more important and rewarding to be at the head of the table making policy — even in occasional cooperation with the opposition — than to be throwing bricks from the back benches.
While Democratic activists probably hope that Republicans will keep going as they are, and Republican activists probably consider Schwarzenegger a turncoat whose advice can and should be ignored, Californians on all sides should hope that his proposals get a hearing. A two-party system in which both parties compete to offer the best solutions for real problems — regardless of ideology — would be good for the state and could give us a fighting chance to get out of doldrums we are in.
Raphael J. Sonenshein is the executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.