SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- The California Chamber of Commerce's annual advocacy conference here last week discussed a possible tradeoff: weakening the state's rigid term limits in exchange for legislative redistricting that would benefit Republicans. For that arrangement to be born, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger must be the midwife. But he does not seem prepared to play the role.
The Republican Party's condition in the nation's most populous state is desperate, with Schwarzenegger its only visible asset. Yet, a redistricting helping the GOP immeasurably is considered outside the frame of reference for the Republican governor, who remembers the issue as one of the ballot propositions he lost in the disastrous election of 2005. His current national priority is preaching the menace of global warming nationwide, and his state mission is practicing the "post-partisanship" of governing across party lines.
Is Schwarzenegger really a Republican? Less so than the young immigrant who rose from body builder to movie star. Less so than the unexpected candidate who replaced Democratic Gov. Gray Davis in the 2003 recall election. Less so than the compelling orator who addressed the 2004 Republican National Convention. Less so than he probably would be now if he had been born in Alabama instead of Austria and could run for the GOP presidential nomination next year. While he is embraced by business interests as incomparably better than Davis or any Democrat, he is a crushing disappointment to hard-pressed Republican activists.
The Time magazine cover twinning Schwarzenegger with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg conveys a false impression. Schwarzenegger's Republican roots run deeper than those of Bloomberg, who took the party label seven years ago so he could become mayor and shed it last week -- or for that matter of Colin Powell, who joined the GOP 12 years ago and sounds as though he might leave it now.
People who knew Schwarzenegger in his body building days describe a fervent conservative, well read in free market economics. When I first met Schwarzenegger, he was a famous actor traveling with presidential nominee George H.W. Bush's entourage in 1988 -- an enthusiastic supporter serving as the warm-up speaker for the candidate's rallies.
Even now, he governs as a Republican as much as did the party's previous governor, Pete Wilson. Employers count on Schwarzenegger to restrain the Legislature's voracious, anti-business Democratic majority, particularly concerning workers compensation. He belatedly brought California into compliance on welfare reform.
But State Sen. Tom McClintock, who as the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor went down with the rest of the ticket last year (while Schwarzenegger won comfortably), maintains a steady drumbeat of essays deploring the governor's administration. In "Budget & Tax News" this month, the numbers-crunching conservative reports that state government spending and the budget deficit are growing faster than they had under the recalled Davis. What McClintock proclaims publicly, other GOP legislators murmur privately.
The turning point came when Schwarzenegger went head-to-head against the state's powerful labor unions, and lost all his ballot initiatives in the 2005 elections. That brought many changes. Mike Murphy, his nationally renowned Republican political consultant who guided him in victory through the 2003 recall election and in defeat through the 2005 ballot propositions, was gone. Liberal Democrat Susan Kennedy became his chief of staff. His Democratic wife, Maria Shriver, gained influence. Peace was made with labor. The governor broke his no-tax increase pledge by proposing $4.5 billion in "fees" to finance his health plan. And Tom McClintock went on the warpath.
"I rediscovered my original purpose," Schwarzenegger declared in his "post-partisanship" inaugural address. "Like Paul on the road to Damascus, I had an experience that opened my eyes." But there is nothing in the Bible to indicate that St. Paul embraced the principles of his enemies after a political defeat.
Schwarzenegger is reported to spend a lot of his time in Los Angeles, rather than Sacramento (kindling speculation that he eventually may run for Mayor of L.A.). It is hard to tell where the governor is these days because his whereabouts are often shrouded in secrecy. That fits the uncertainty of California Republicans who don't know whether their only elected statewide official is with them in spirit.