Debra J. Saunders

Already Arnold Schwarzenegger has changed the California Republican Party. He won. That's a revolutionary departure from November 2002, when California voters elected only Democrats to statewide office, as well as November 1998, when California voters elected the first Democratic governor in 16 years, Gray Davis.

Schwarzenegger also changed the face of the GOP. During his victory celebration, he strode onstage accompanied by his wife, Maria Shriver, and other members of the famous Kennedy clan, including her father, former Democratic vice presidential nominee Sargent Shriver. Add Jay Leno, Rob Lowe and Gary Busey, and Republicans might want to stop bashing celebrities in politics.

The next day, California GOP Chairman Duf Sundheim was flush with unfamiliar victory. Asked if he believes the party has moved to the happy center, Sundheim answered, "The party is more diverse. It still is true to its basic principles of fiscal responsibility, individual responsibility and individual liberty, but the party has shown it can have different positions that matter a lot to individuals."

I'll take that as a yes. In fact, the recall provides a textbook case of moderates hijacking a conservative idea.

GOP honchos originally backed away from the recall. Hard-core conservative activists delivered this baby while the Bushies privately cringed. Insiders believed President Bush would fare better in 2004 with a bad Democrat at the helm of a flailing California. Many politicos feared a backfire: that the recall would install a strong, less unpopular Democrat to the governor's suite. Or it might deliver a rock-rib Republican -- as in state Sen. Tom McClintock, failed gubernatorial nominee Bill Simon or Rep. Darrell Issa -- who then would be rendered irrelevant by obstructionist Sacramento Democrats. They do, after all, constitute the majority of both houses of the Legislature.

When it looked as if Schwarzenegger just might squeak by, I asked Democratic political strategist Darry Sragow if Democrats could work with Schwarzenegger. "Whether or not the Legislature wants to work with him is up to Arnold Schwarzenegger," answered Sragow.

The answer from GOP Assemblyman Keith Richman came at it from a different viewpoint: "Arnold is going to be able to work with Democrats. The question is how well Democrats are willing to work with Arnold.''

"I'm not Pollyannish," said Richman, noting that he is aware of anger among his Democratic colleagues. Some "may well be starting the 2006 election campaign now," he said, or brewing another recall. Still, Richman, who has worked with Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla, D-Martinez, to create a bipartisan caucus, figures 15 or 20 out of the 48 Assembly Dems could work with T3.

But if the governator works with Democrats, will he lose the GOP base?

He may be lucky. State revenues have exceeded expectations of late. An economic recovery could come to the rescue.

Otherwise, Schwarzenegger won't be able to deliver on all his campaign promises -- eliminating the car tax hike, not cutting school spending and not raising taxes. As San Francisco Democratic Assemblyman Mark Leno noted, if balancing the budget were as "simple" as cutting fraud and waste, "we would have done it already."

This year's $38 billion deficit, it should be noted, was so huge that it exceeded $1,000 per Californian.

There could be a big deficit next year, too. Schwarzenegger pointed out Wednesday at his first press conference that if lawsuits challenging bonds floated to balance last year's budget are successful, next year's deficit could exceed $20 billion. Despite his massive mandate, the muscleman may have to propose raising taxes.

"If he comes out and starts talking about tax increases, the Republican base is going to go ape," predicted GOP consultant Richard Temple -- unless Schwarzenegger does a solid job of communicating the need for action. Temple noted that GOP governors Ronald Reagan and Pete Wilson raised taxes and survived.

Schwarzenegger "didn't create this problem," Temple said, "so he's not responsible for the problem, but he is responsible for ending politics as usual."

For a Republican Party starved for victory, that would do nicely -- tax hike or not.


Debra J. Saunders


 
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