Yesterday, I posted this piece by Daniel Henninger of the Wall Street Journal. Hennninger argues that the Schwarzenegger victory signifies a change in the national political landscape. Specifically, Henninger thinks that the center of American politics has moved to the right. Until recently, he says, the center was occupied by “Rockefeller Republicans,” exemplified these days by Senators Lincoln Chafee and Olympia Snowe. But Arnold points the way to a new center that is closer to conservatism (and more acceptable to conservative voters) because he stands (Henninger hopes) for a more limited view of “the state’s proper role in economic and political life.”
Here are some observations about Henninger’s thesis:
1. Rockefeller Republicans were liberal Republicans, not moderates. A better example of a moderate Republican of the 1950s and 1960s was Richard Nixon. In fact, some have pointed to Schwarzenegger’s admiration of Nixon. Henninger makes much of George Shultz’s appearance at Arnold’s victory party, noting that Shultz would never support an old-school Republican moderate. But Shultz was in Nixon’s cabinet.
2. Today’s Republcan moderate tends to be conservative on economic issues and liberal on social issues. The social issues as to which these moderates tend to be liberal — abortion, gay rights, etc — weren’t really issues in the days of Rockefeller and Nixon. So it probably doesn’t make that much sense to compare the political center of 1960 to the political center of today. It is true, though, that the welfare state has been “found out,” so that the center on economic issues has moved to the right. This started happening in the late 1970s and doesn’t have much to do with Schwarzenegger.
3. The center (wherever that is at any given time) is usually a good place for a candidate to be. The problem for centrists is always securing nomination. Our system makes that very difficult. It produces mostly nominees who are traditional liberals or conservatives, or else it produces candidates who are good at feigning moderation (Bill Clinton and Gray Davis, for example).
4. It isn’t clear to me that Arnold’s victory changes this dynamic. Arnold, of course, didn’t have to win a nomination. Even so, the fact that he won so many conservative votes despite McClintock’s presence provides some support for Henninger’s thesis. But let’s not overlook (a) Arnold’s celebrity and (b) the voters’ intense desire that Davis not be replaced by Bustamante. I suspect that Simon’s victory over Riordan in the California primary just a year ago tells us as much about the future prospects of moderate Republicans as Arnold’s victory in the recall election.
5. I wouldn’t regard the rise of an “Arnold wing” of the Republican party as a good thing. For one thing, it would probably mean capitulation on a host of important “social” issues. And, ironically enough, it would move the center to the left, unless the Democrats also moderated their stance. If a few Arnold’s replace Lincoln Chafee. Olympia Snowe, and Barbara Boxer, that’s fine. But let’s not get carried away.
6. Finally, a word about President Bush. Henninger states that “the new political space Arnold has staked” is “a space also covered by George Bush.” I think this is true to some extent (it happened because the Republicans were desperate to regain the White House and because Bush’s primary Republican competition came from a true Republican moderate, John McCain). This is probably one reason why the Democrats are so intent on demonizing Bush (as they demonized Nixon). For example, it explains John Ashcroft’s special place in Democratic mythology. The complicity of the press provides some hope that the Democrats will succeed in effectively preventing the Republicans from running moderates for high office even when they actually do run moderates for high office. But I don’t think the Democrats actually will succeed at this. So the real test will occur in 2008 when, I hope, the Republicans will nominate a presidential candidate more conservative than President Bush and certainly more conservative than Arnold.
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