WASHINGTON -- It was not spelled out during the brief get-acquainted meeting at Riverside, Calif., last week between George W. Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger, but the president's campaign team is giving firm advice to the governor-elect of California: don't raise taxes and do cut spending.
That is more than an altruistic helping hand for a fellow Republican new to the business of governing. Bush's prospects for a second term could be at stake. Republican strategists no longer consider California so clearly Democratic that it will end up as a "red" state only in the unlikely event of a re-election landslide by the president. On the contrary, Bush may need California's 55 electoral votes to eke out a second term win.
The original White House strategy imagined a Golden State campaign where Bush would be running against the backdrop of failed Democratic Gov. Gray Davis. What Bush's planners cannot tolerate now is a failed Republican governor in Sacramento. The fear in Washington is that Schwarzenegger will plunge into a high tax abyss and take Bush with him.
The new governor will be surrounded by civil servants who will argue that there is no way out of the state budgetary crunch other than to raise taxes -- the same politically disastrous pleadings accepted in recent years by Republican governors of Tennessee, Alabama, Ohio and Nevada. If Schwarzenegger succumbs to the same siren song, Bush's unwanted choice in California next year will be between rejecting or ignoring a tax-hiking governor.
Bush agents recommend the alternative favored by California conservatives: cut back the bloated state government, a course rejected by dominant Democrats in the state legislature, by appealing to citizenry. The Progressive movement a century ago left Californians not only the Recall, which removed Davis and elected Schwarzenegger, but also the Initiative, which could enact measures reducing government.
This exercise takes on an air of urgency for Bush when the 2004 electoral map is analyzed realistically. Prospects to turn Michigan and Pennsylvania, big "blue" states of 2000, are not at all promising. The "red" states of Florida, Ohio and West Virginia are most vulnerable to going the other way next year. Therefore, California could be a necessity, not a luxury.