Until two weeks ago, George W. Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger were having a remarkably similar, and disastrous, year. Each began 2005 at the top of his game -- the president reelected with enhanced congressional majorities, the governator boasting an approval rating of 65 percent. Each then chose to govern well to the right of his electorate -- Bush promoting the privatization of Social Security, Arnold sponsoring ballot measures that would have cut spending on schools and diminished the power of the state's unions. Despite rising public discontent, each elected not to alter his course -- Bush refusing to scale back his war in Iraq, Arnold declining to cancel California's special election and call off his war on the labor movement.
And last month, each experienced unprecedented defeat. In the House, Republican moderates opposed the spending cuts backed by Bush and their leaders, and California voters rejected all of Schwarzenegger's propositions. Today these two once-brightest stars in the Republican firmament sputter along with approval ratings in the high thirties.
But in the final days of November, their stories finally diverged. While the president admits no errors of policy or judgment, clings to Karl Rove, and refuses to dump Donald Rumsfeld for reasons that confound all understanding, the governor has gone in for a full-body makeover. In rapid succession, he apologized to California voters for having saddled them with his special election, hatched a $50 billion-plus bond measure that exceeds anything California liberals could have conceived, and appointed as his new chief of staff a former director of the state Democratic Party and the California Abortion Rights Action League whose most recent Sacramento stint was as the top aide to Gov. Gray Davis, whom Schwarzenegger unseated in the recall election of 2003.
Even for those accustomed to the malleability of Hollywood identity, the rollout of the new Arnold is mind-boggling. After all his talk about holding down spending, the governator now says it's time to renew the legacy of Pat Brown, the great Democratic governor of the late 1950s and early '60s who built the state's freeways, aqueducts and universities. It's time, says Arnold, for a mega-bond issue that would fund more schools, shore up levees, repave roads and build affordable housing. He's still nobody's redistributionist, but the new Arnold apparently, and rightly, believes that big government can fuel big growth.
And to push his program through, he has replaced Patricia Clarey, his chief of staff, who had worked for former Republican governor Pete Wilson, with Susan Kennedy, who was Gray Davis's enforcer. In her quarter-century in politics, Kennedy, who began her career as a student organizer for Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda's Campaign for Economic Democracy, has moved steadily rightward: She backed all of Arnold's ballot measures this fall, and as a member of the state's Public Utilities Commission since 2003 she has gleefully comforted utilities and afflicted consumers. Nonetheless, she's still a registered Democrat, and Phil Angelides, the erstwhile state party chairman who hired her to run the party back in 1992, is today the state treasurer and Arnold's leading opponent in next year's gubernatorial contest. Add to that the fact that Kennedy is an open lesbian who exchanged vows with her partner in a ceremony on Maui a few years back, and you begin to get some sense of why many California Republicans are both stunned and apoplectic.
In the aftermath of his electoral debacle, Schwarzenegger has realized that in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than a million voters, and where independents are nearly as liberal as Democrats, governing from the right is a prescription for disaster. Still, no one courts defeat like rank-and-file California Republicans, who'd rather Schwarzenegger be far right than governor and who may back a primary challenge to him next spring.
Clearly, the prez and the guv have learned very different lessons from life. The distinctive feature of Bush's career, as he moved from one floundering oil company to the next, was that there never were any negative consequences for failure, that any need to admit error and instigate change was always obviated by the willingness of his father's friends to bail him out. Schwarzenegger, meanwhile, comes from a culture where you're only as good as your last picture, where chins are lifted, tummies tucked, scenes reshot and careers reconfigured if the box office demands it.
That said, I'm not sure what upsets me more -- Schwarzenegger's makeover or Bush's obdurate refusal to change anything. Representative democracy requires some consistency of identity in our elected officials, and Arnold has become a blur of reinvention. The most corporeal figure in American political history has crossed the line from particle to wave, while our president is as steadfast, and as open to experience, as a bump on a log.
Characterologically, at least, the Republicans might consider a Third Way.