Predictions are a mugs game, and mine are worse than most, so take this with a grain of salt. But I see two likely narratives emerging concerning Arnold Schwarzenegger, neither of which I like.
Schwarzenegger’s golden political image has been tarnished lately by the utter fiscal insolvency of California. Part of this can be explained by the financial crisis, but it’s also the case that there are many endemic problems which Schwarznegger has either failed to address or has helped create. That’s bad news for any politician, of course, but it’s particularly bad when your image is as a cross-ideological technocrat, an open-minded Republican who just gets things done. There was a genuine enthusiasm for Schwarzenegger, and still is, not just as an individual politician– I don’t think he’ll ever be President, constitutional amendment or no– but as an emblem of what Republicans could turn to after the collapse of Bushism. Socially and culturally adaptive (not liberal, exactly), animated by small government rhetoric but amenable to good government impulses as well, and predicated on a basis of competence, I think there’s a lot of appeal to this kind of New Rockefeller Republican. But it all stems from the idea that he/she actually can govern effectively and responsibly. Of all the many damages inflicted on conservatism and the Republican party by the Bush administration, many of the most potent were simple matters of implementation and basic governmental competence. People need evidence to show that the GOP, once the party of a kind of ruthless efficiency, can actually pull it together and govern. When your state is sliding towards financial collapse, that’s made quite difficult.
Anyway, here’s my sad predictions: either Schwarzenegger’s failures to live up to the whole “gets shit done” leg of the New Rockefeller stool will be taken as proof that it’s a dead end for the GOP, as I believe I saw George Will claim on This Week once (can’t find a link, sorry); or Schwarzenegger won’t actually get held to account for the extreme fiduciary mismanagement of California at all, and will coast on reputation. I could be wrong, and this is just a feeling. But I suspect that either Arnold’s image won’t be seriously effected, despite the depths of the problems California faces, and once again image will trump reality in American politics, or the baby will get thrown out with the bathwater, and people will reject this new technocratic Republicanism. There is particular vulnerability to this kind of rejection because these New Rockefeller Republicans are casually considered to be farther left than their mainstream peers, and conservative reformist movements tend to be penalized for being perceived as too liberal.
I don’t know, I guess I just feel that American politics have become so personality driven that we are unable to see the value of given movements beyond the degree to which they are tethered to individual politicians. If Barack Obama’s presidential campaign had been a failure, even in a very close race, I’m quite certain neoliberalism would have emerged emboldened, regardless of the underlying practical realities. I may be wrong to conflate Schwarzenegger with a technocratic conservative revival, but his failures at least give me pause.
As it stands, I think the GOP desperately needs this kind of influence, for the political future; and as American politics is partisan and cyclical, I think the country desperately needs it too. I’d prefer conservatives not take power again, of course, but I’m realistic about it, and as much as conservative and liberal are moving targets, at some point the conservative party will be back in power. Sooner than I’m comfortable with. For the country’s sake, the GOP has to reconnect with the tough, pragmatic wonk side that used to lend so much cachet to the conservative cause.
This is not, however, an endeavor that is independent from ideological recalibration. It’s my belief that part of the reason that Rockefeller Republicans were known as more liberal than their Goldwaterite brethren is not just because of social issues, but because sometimes being a competent legislator or executive means expanding government influence. This is all going to be dependent on your natural ideological impulses, of course. We’ll agree to disagree about the specifics. But I think it is the case that part of being a technocrat is knowing when to say “here, we simply have to have government,” and being able to swallow ideological inclination and let government work. In other words, the emphasis on ability and pragmatics that could save the GOP will come with a certain amount of centrist leaning, not just because of the necessity of building a broad coalition but because getting things done will require the ability to compromise in the direction of good government. I think some of this is caught up in the old idea that conservatives have failed in government because conservatives have to, that you can’t do good running something you’d like to destroy. This argument infuriates a lot of conservatives, and not without cause; it’s often made frivolously. It does, however, have a certain elementary logic to it. I wouldn’t hire a guy who hates baseball to manage my team. The question is going to be one of degree, and in what situations exactly it is prudent for conservative leaders to break towards expanding government when pragmatics and need call for it. I think there is room for this technocratic GOP, and in fact I think that it might be the only method for conservatives to avoid irrelevence through demographics. But it’s got to come first and foremost through actual success in governance, and my suspicion is that such success can only come from a more moderate vision of the use of government. I just don’t see a Grover Norquist-style future for the Republican party that can make good on that level.
But I would say that!