SACRAMENTO–The recall of Gov. Gray Davis is heading for a fall election. “It’ll be covered like a mini-presidential race,” says GOP consultant Joe Shumate — and watched like a thriller movie. Part of the reason will be Arnold Schwarzenegger, who, his campaign advisers believe, will be running–or starring, to put it in Hollywood idiom, in a political sequel to his “Total Recall.”
Few people are more disciplined and better at marketing themselves than Mr. Schwarzenegger. “He will run as a Republican, but his campaign may feel like a third-party insurgency,” says Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Weintraub. Ironically, for a macho star of movies like “Terminator 3,” he must solidify skeptical conservatives behind him. They will question his more liberal social views and wonder if he can really change the state’s anti-business mentality.
Mr. Schwarzenegger needs conservatives because, should Mr. Davis be recalled, the new governor will be whoever wins a plurality of the vote in the simultaneous election to succeed him. He has assembled the team behind former GOP Gov. Pete Wilson’s four statewide wins. They’ve hired 50 people and a preliminary campaign budget is $35 million. Mr. Wilson is bullish on the race saying, “Arnold has a total focus and clarity of vision that would impress voters.” He needs the vision: Rep. Darrell Issa, 2002 GOP gubernatorial nominee Bill Simon, and State Sen. Tom McClintock could all run by appealing to conservatives, making the election of a late-entry Democrat possible.
Mr. Schwarzenegger came to America in 1968 at age 21 with little money and even less English. After winning bodybuilding contests, he took $28,000 in savings and began a real-estate empire. Today he owns shopping malls, a Boeing 747 that he leases to an airline, and chunks of Santa Monica. He earned an MBA from the University of Wisconsin, and married Maria Shriver, a niece of JFK. He pulled down $30 million for “Terminator 3.” Last year, his initiative to set up after-school programs in every California school won 50 out of 53 Congressional districts and was endorsed by taxpayer groups because it relies on revenues from natural economic growth rather than higher taxes.
Of course, his life story won’t cut any ice if the Terminator doesn’t convince people he can tackle the state’s budget. “Many GOP activists wonder if Arnold is an empty suit,” says John Kurzweil of the California Political Review. “They also wonder why he promotes his films on the Howard Stern show.”
Mr. Schwarzenegger will also have to weather personal attacks. Back in 1988 he told Playboy he wouldn’t enter politics because “you have to clean up your act.” Jamie Lee Curtis, his co-star in “True Lies,” says he would be “a complete natural in politics, although he’d have to curb his ribald and wicked sense of humor.” But the attacks will go beyond any Hollywood hijinks. “We’ll have the tabloids go after him,” a top Democratic strategist confided to the LA Weekly, though a negative profile touted by the Davis campaign was largely discredited. A movie security guard told me the actor sometimes belittles people and can be overbearing in his demands for star treatment. “The only thing that makes me nervous is when I don’t get my own way,” he has admitted.
His support of abortion rights and gay adoption will give social conservatives heartburn. But many so badly want a winner that they could give the Terminator a pass if he shows respect for their views. “If he half-tries to come our way and keeps his word, many pro-family voters will go for him,” says Gerry Snyder, chair of the California Family Council. “But they need signals.” They’re starting. The actor has told his friend Rep. Dana Rohrabacher that he opposes partial-birth abortion and backs the Boy Scouts’ right to set private standards for membership. While he supports the state’s ban on assault weapons, he has opposed strict gun controls. His advisers hint he wants to restore a limit on state spending that was removed in 1990.
Comparisons between the Terminator and another actor who ran for California governor are inevitable. Mr. Schwarzenegger keeps a large bust of Ronald Reagan in his office and says “Reagan was heaven.” Like the Gipper, the Terminator delegates authority well and favors short bullet-point memos. But they are also clearly different men, with Mr. Schwarzenegger’s public cockiness (“I am programmed to be a star”) contrasting with Mr. Reagan’s consistent humility. But his work with inner-city youths gives him an appeal to minorities that Mr. Reagan didn’t have. “Arnold’s popularity among Hispanics is off the charts,” says one pollster.
Some critics charge that, unlike Mr. Reagan, Mr. Schwarzenegger has no clear ideology. While known as “Conan the Republican,” he didn’t alienate Hollywood with overt philosophical combat. But there is abundant evidence he has clear beliefs: call him a compassionate libertarian. Rep. Ed Royce remembers him attending many dinners of the libertarian Reason Foundation. When Milton Friedman’s PBS series “Free to Choose” was reissued in 1991, Mr. Schwarzengger jumped at the chance to introduce a show he said “changed my life.” “I come from Austria, a socialistic country. There you can hear 18-year-olds talking about their pension. But me, I wanted more. I wanted to be the best,” he told viewers. “Individualism like that is incompatible with socialism. I felt I had to come to America, where the government wasn’t always breathing down your neck or standing on your shoes.”
While he has given countless copies of “Free to Choose” to friends, his free-market views have been leavened by his belief that “government should ensure a fair start and fair competition for all.” He attended fund-raisers for “bleeding-heart conservative” Jack Kemp in 1988, even though George H.W. Bush was the frontrunner for president. But relations with the Bush clan are tight. The White House cleared the way for him to rally U.S. troops in Iraq this month and beam priceless footage back to California.
One difference between the two is that while Mr. Reagan championed free markets, “Ah-nuld” has been wildly successful in them. But the Gipper served as president of the Screen Actors Guild and learned the need to sometimes make people angry. “Arnold has avoided clear positions on many issues,” a person close to him says. “He would be a great governor but only if he is willing to confront the spending lobbies.” Mr. Rohrabacher explains his friend’s reticence: “Why tip your hand until you know exactly what you want to say and when best to say it?” Another friend worries that he has people around him who are afraid to deliver bad news.
Then there is the media. Mr. Schwarzenegger plots publicity blitzes with the zeal of a Clauzewitz. Sheri Annis, press secretary for his initiative last year, notes that “the entertainment media tends to coddle their subjects while political reporters are going to keep nudging him. How he handles that will really determine the outcome.” Mr. Schwarzenegger may emulate Mr. Reagan by transcending the media and challenging Gov. Davis to one-on-one debates. A good showing might dispel doubts about his experience. If Mr. Davis ducked debates it would only reinforce his image as a weak leader.
Mr. Schwarzengger is being bombarded with advice. Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan told me his friend needs to make moderate women comfortable with him. Some urge him to talk Sen. McClintock, a budget expert, out of the race by making him a key adviser. Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform thinks he should campaign as the Tax Terminator and endorse sunsetting all new taxes after four years. Steve Moore of the Club for Growth wants him to favor a flat tax.
All this ideological tugging occurs because the actor hasn’t spent a dozen years honing a crystal-clear message the way Mr. Reagan did before he first ran. Does the Terminator want to run primarily to scale another seemingly impossible career mountain or to transform California’s dysfunctional government? The answer is probably both, but he must convince voters his primary motive involves them, not him.
The Austria-born actor may have an ace up his sleeve. He is ineligible to be president. Since California governors have often been distracted by having one eye on the White House, he can claim he will have no higher priority than the Golden State’s problems. Pledging that kind of “total focus” would not only serve Californians best, but could make his candidacy both less implausible and more appealing.
”’John Fund is a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal.”’
”’Originally published in the Wall Street Journal.”’