Arnold's hour?

Posted: Aug 25, 2003 12:00 AM
The scene of Arnold Schwarzenegger with Milton Friedman (no less) figuratively on his right, and George Shultz (no less) on his left, declaring his intention to run for governor of California is heady conservative endorsement. For one thing, the contrast was vivid. The first announcement was done under the auspices of Jay Leno.

There was the distracting presence of Warren Buffett, sitting next to Mr. Shultz. Mr. Buffett is richer even than Arabian sheiks, but to the conservative community he is noticeable mostly for having endorsed high death taxes and capital gains taxes. The fact that Arnold Schwarzenegger is endorsed by the richest man in the world tells us very little about what Californians can hope to accomplish after Mr. Davis is ousted.

But Friedman-Shultz is another matter. Mr. Friedman is the prime figure in the conservative pantheon in matters that have to do with economic growth and statist continence. Mr. Shultz is, after Henry Kissinger, the senior alumnus of conservative statecraft.

But why Schwarzenegger (hereinafter, Arnold, for convenience)? California conservatives have correctly dismissed any argument that he has gained his eminence by toiling in the vineyards of political thought. Comparisons with Ronald Reagan are mindless -- Reagan spent 10 years developing his political thought before seeking the governorship. Arnold and Ronald have in common only that they were theatrical celebrities, their names and faces instantly recognized by the voters.

But Arnold is out of step with conservative thinking on social policies, most particularly the question of the rights of the unborn child. He is vigorously in favor of abortion, and it pays to remind oneself that neither Friedman nor Shultz is active in social conservatism. Richard Nixon once told a friend that he had learned from his own experience running for governor of California in 1962 that you can't win merely by appealing to conservatives. "But you can't win unless you do appeal to conservatives."

So what does Arnold have to offer to California conservatives? He has primarily to offer his clean notoriety. He is the man who made it as an immigrant, radiates a pumped-iron health, made his urbane way into the Kennedy clan without taking vows of eternal servility, made and enhanced a considerable fortune by exploiting his physique and investing prudently -- and he nicely accommodates the fantasy that to survive the grayness of California life, you need a touch of Cinderella. The awful conundrums of California economics and political demography welcome a Hollywood ending. But to get that, you need to come up through the ranks of the initiated. If you hope for theatrical recovery, you can't achieve it by voting for Bustamante.

Everyone in the United States, it seems, has commented on the California scene. The insight of Jerry Brown warrants attention. Mr. Brown is a little screwy but very bright, and did two terms as governor. To skeptics he said: "It's obvious Schwarzenegger is qualified. I mean, what does it take to become a governor? I've been there; I've known all the governors since Earl Warren's time. And basically, if you have above-average intelligence, you have common sense, and you can speak in front of a camera and to a crowd, you can govern the state. I mean, after all, the governing process includes the legislature, a very competent civil service, and all sorts of rules and regulations that guide the state on its way. The whole thing about experience is a canard."

All of this may be so, and the voter can assume that Arnold could plausibly serve, but Friedman-Shultz must have winced at the decision to pass over Bill Simon. Simon, after all, is the nominal head of the Republican Party of California, having won its primary election and competed with near-success against Gray Davis. Simon has a portfolio of right-minded positions on dealing with California's excesses. Institutional loyalties would suggest he be given the support of California conservatives, and it is poetic justice that the man who defeated him in the general election should have served less than a single year before being recalled.

There are the special difficulties of October. There will be no primary. And there is only one visible Democratic candidate, competing against three substantial Republicans. What force will bring unity? A proposal: All three Republican candidates who trail the leader in the polls two weeks before Oct. 7 should agree to withdraw in favor of the leader.