If this were what they call in Hollywood a "buddy-buddy actioner," the script would open with a split screen of the leading men, one on each coast, sweating through their workouts before checking in with each other about a new mission. Of course, that really happened last week in what passes for reality in American politics. Last Tuesday, Arnold Schwarzenegger--immigrant Austrian body-builder turned global movie star turned Republican politician--won the governorship of California in a recall election that expelled Democrat Gray Davis. The next morning, at his mansion in Brentwood, the Terminator had just finished pumping iron when he received a call from George W. Bush, who, naturally, had just been doing the same thing. For a photo op of the call, the president threw on a coat and tie. "I'm proud of you," said Bush, who had kept his distance from the Schwarzenegger campaign for tactical reasons. Arnold thanked him, adding that he (and "Caleefornia") would need lots of help. "I look forward to working with you," Bush replied.
Cue the Lalo Shifrin music: this is going to be an adventure. In and of itself, Arnold's victory is storyboard stuff--a vivid tribute to every Tinseltown California theme from the beachfront love of physical prowess to the myth of the can-do-over Golden State immigrant to the idea of fame as tonic for the human condition. In local terms it was remarkable for another reason: it was the first time a Republican had won the governor's seat since 1994. But Schwarzenegger's triumph also was a Left Coast political earthquake, and its tremors were moving across the continent. The victory instantly made Arnold a major Republican figure, a close second to the president. Republicans immediately began seeking ways to benefit from Arnoldmania, while Democratic presidential wanna-bes looked to ride the same wave of discontent that had lifted Arnold in California. "Voter anger is building everywhere in the country," said Joe Trippi, Howard Dean's campaign manager. "The same forces will put Bush in jeopardy next year."
Perhaps, but in the meantime White House strategists were insisting they saw only upside. Humiliated by earlier efforts to engineer outcomes in Democrat-dominated California, they originally had preferred to leave the hapless, hated Davis in place to take the blame for the state's stunted economy and swelling debt. Now, in the Arnold Ascendancy, the Bushies saw a chance to put California "in play" in a presidential race for the first time since the '80s. Just as important, they see Schwarzenegger supplying an infusion of optimism, confidence and pizzazz that is reminiscent--dare they say it?--of another genial actor turned California Republican icon, Ronald Reagan. Strategists are salivating at the thought of using Schwarzenegger as a big fund-raising draw and a charismatic headliner at the Republican convention in New York. "He'll be a real star," predicted GOP polltaker Bill McInturff.
But a thriller flick is about facing mortal challenges, and the old Terminator and the presiding Top Gun will face several between now and the last reel. There is, for one, Arnold's liberal views on social issues: an amalgam of Hollywood roots and marriage into the Kennedy clan. Pro-choice, pro-gay-rights and pro-gun-control (and an admitted groper of women on movie sets), Schwarzenegger is unlikely to be a hero among the GOP's Bible Belt grass roots. He won't be one anywhere if he can't solve the California fiscal crisis. Having vowed not to raise taxes--indeed, he vowed to abolish at least one, which brings in $4 billion annually--Arnold somehow must erase a $12 billion deficit through spending cuts. Even moves he thinks he can make on his own are open to question--such as wiping Davis's loathed "car tax" increase off the books. If he wants a war with the Democratic-controlled legislature, he'll get it; if he wants to cut a deal, it will require abandoning his tax pledge, or so Democrats hope. "There will be no honeymoon," says Democratic State Treasurer Phil Angelides.
Bush, meanwhile, must confront much of the same voter doubt and discontent that propelled Schwarzenegger (and his broom) to Sacramento. White House, Republican and "BC04" (Bush-Cheney '04) strategists scoff at the implicit comparison of Bush to Davis. The ousted governor, they note, had a job-approval rating of 26 percent, a dismal low unseen since the Nixon days, and about half the size of Bush's. Californians' view of the state of their state--battered by an energy crisis, a dot-com collapse and waves of illegal immigrants--was just as bad. "There was a special anger here because of special circumstances," said Arnold strategist Mike Murphy. "This is a wacky [election] with a cool candidate. It's the perfect storm." GOP polltaker McInturff invoked Freud to make the same point. "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar," he said.
Still, the numbers in the NEWSWEEK Poll should give Karl Rove & Co. pause. Fewer voters (40 percent) say they are "satisfied" with the way things are going in this country than at any time in the Bush presidency. Bush's ratings for handling the economy remain perilously low (38 percent approval), while his rating for handling the war in Iraq has declined to a record low (44 percent approve). Questions that probe deeper voter attitudes yield ominous results--for all incumbents. Only 27 percent of those polled say they trust the government to "do what's right," and 70 percent agree that the "political system is so controlled by special interests and by partisanship that it cannot respond to the country's real needs." Voters aren't yet as furious as they were a decade ago, when Rep. Newt Gingrich led a revolt against the Democrats' 40-year-long hegemony in the House, "but they are getting there," said GOP polltaker Frank Luntz, who advised Gingrich. "Anger has to start somewhere," Luntz said, "and it has in California."
But it takes an outsider to the system--like Arnold--to channel that anger, and it's not clear whether merely being a Democrat will be enough to qualify as one in the presidential race to come. Strategists for Dean and Wesley Clark argue, naturally enough, that only their men meet that test. There is some evidence that Democratic voters, at least for now, agree with that view. In the race for only a few weeks, Clark continues to lead (barely, with 15 percent) the Democratic field in the NEWSWEEK Poll. Dean, for his part, continues to show strength in the early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire, and in fund-raising and volunteer-harvesting operations on the Internet.
In theory, Clark is the closest Democrats can come to a Terminator-style deus exmachina: another electoral novice with no voting record but with tactical savvy, contacts in high places and a macho-military aura. In one sense Clark can outdo Arnold: unlike the actor, he fought with valor (and was wounded) in a real war, Vietnam, and called in real strikes against real enemies, in Kosovo.
Perhaps that's why Clark's Democratic presidential competitors attacked him so heartily last week in a debate in Phoenix. Their complaints: he isn't a "real" Democrat (he admits to having voted for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan before switching to Al Gore in 2000) and he is a waffler on Iraq. "He's been all over the lot on the war," charged Rep. Dennis Kucinich. Clark has repeatedly sought to clarify his stance. But, in response to the buffeting, he has generally clammed up and turned to canned statements, thus undercutting a necessary qualification for any "outsider": a reputation for unrehearsed candor. He seemed uncomfortable and bland in a postdebate appearance at a nearby hotel ballroom. "It was the most trite speech," complained Jeremy Hamerman, an Arizona State University student who had contributed to Clark's campaign. "It made Arnold Schwarzenegger look specific."
Outsiders-in-training need to study the Schwarzenegger Method. To begin, it is a good idea to have a dump truck full of cash, and Arnold--one of the world's most bankable stars--had one: anywhere from $250 million to $800 million by most estimates. He took donations (from some of the same special interests he will now need to tame), but whenever he needed more he could dip into his own war chest. If you don't have the money, fame will do and, of course, Arnold had that, too--derived from his own movie career and on his status as a Kennedy-by-marriage. It also helps to have a crippled opponent with a self-destructive campaign strategy. (Davis relied on "help" in the form of endorsements from all the Democratic Party's leading lights, from former president Bill Clinton on down. But, to many voters, the endorsers were part of the problem, not the solution.)
But the Arnold Earthquake was no accident. An avid chess player, he'd been studying the board for years. The Kennedys (or, more particularly, the Shrivers) adopted him, seeking to revivify their fading brand through merger. At the dining-room table in Hyannis Port, Schwarzenegger got a priceless education in verbal jousting, substantive issues and Irish-style bonhomie.
The movie business itself is a close cousin of politics, both in terms of networking and the art of making--and remaking--your own public image. "In that sense, to call him an outsider is ridiculous," said Gary Ross, a director (and ardent Democrat) whose films include "Dave" and "Seabiscuit." "He knows how to be a public figure. It's what he does." As a producer, as well as actor, Schwarzenegger has assembled the equivalent of several globalized political campaigns. "For everybody who snickered at Arnold," says Murphy, "you put together a movie in just 62 days with a $178 million budget; you pick the script, pick the director, pick the cast and crew. And do not make a mistake. That's the equivalent of what this guy did."
In politics, as in the movies, timing is all, and Arnold was careful to strike--stealthily--at just the right time. By some accounts, he had considered jumping into the '02 governor's race as a last-minute write-in, but most friends assumed he'd bide his time until '06. Schwarzenegger had "been briefed for two years" on political developments and the issues, according to a GOP California insider. Sources close to Richard Riordan tell NEWSWEEK that the former L.A. mayor thought he had a deal with Arnold: that the movie star would not run, and would endorse Riordan at a press conference. But it didn't turn out that way. Without telling Riordan (who was still considering making the race) and to the astonishment of his own aides, Schwarzenegger announced his candidacy on "The Tonight Show."
An unconventional launch was followed by an unconventional campaign. While he issued the requisite gauzy "position papers," and held an economic summit of sorts, the Schwarzenegger campaign defiantly eschewed electioneering-as-usual. Since there was no need to compete in a GOP primary (recalls in California being nonpartisan affairs), he could afford to put the traditional (and traditionally conservative) Republican operatives in the background. To partner with ad man Don Sipple, Arnold enlisted Murphy, a manic spinner and strategist best known for helping turn Sen. John McCain's maverick campaign into a near winner in 2000.
As for "the media," Schwarzenegger's team quickly decided to avoid it. Rather than try to prove his bona fides as a pol by subjecting him to a round of debates and interviews with ink-stained wretches in the press corps, Arnold's handlers helped him float above it all, like a balloon in the Macy's parade. He consented to "Oprah" and a few strategic cable-TV hits-- "Hardball" and "The O'Reilly Factor"--but little else. Murphy, impresario of McCain's bus tour, launched another one for Arnold, but it couldn't have been more different. On the "Straight Talk Express," reporters literally sat at McCain's feet; in the Schwarzenegger entourage, the scribes weren't even allowed on the same bus.
But Schwarzenegger, proving a theory pioneered by Bush in 2000, not only didn't suffer from his lack of direct contact with the media, he thrived on it. His splendid isolation seemed to have left him vulnerable when the L.A. Times launched a series of stories that detailed his history of casually rude contact (or worse) with women. But shrewdly, Schwarzenegger conceded the essential truth of some charges ("Where there is smoke, there is fire," he allowed) without confirming specific details in any of the cases. Arnold turned out to be his own best spin doctor.
He and his team also played the White House connection carefully. Arnold, in fact, had a close relationship with the Bush family, going back to the days when he headed Bush I's Council on Physical Fitness. (Poppy was the other Bush to place a congratulatory call to Schwarzenegger; he called on election night.) Team Arnold might have been able to cajole the White House into helping, at least behind the scenes. But the mutual decision--in Washington and Santa Monica--was not to try, though Bush political guru Rove privately made it clear that he thought Arnold was the strongest of several GOP candidates in the race. Schwarzenegger's advisers also wanted to undercut a Democratic horror-story accusation: that Rove & Co. were trampling democracy from coast to coast, first in the Florida recount and now in the recall. The White House "stayed the hell out of the way," said a source in the Arnold campaign.
The results on Election Day were impressive. Voters recalled Davis by a 55-45 percent margin. On the second part of the ballot, 49 percent chose Arnold from among the list of 135 candidates to replace Davis. The second-place finisher was the lone major Democrat in the race, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante. The demographic breakdowns in the L.A. Times exit poll were just as interesting and, from the GOP's point of view, encouraging. Arnold won 23 percent of the Democratic vote and, despite the presence of Bustamante on the ballot, 31 percent of the Latino vote. Combined with the votes won by the GOP's other major candidate, State Sen. Tom McClintock, the GOP numbers were even more impressive. "California is in play," declared GOP State Senate leader Jim Brulte. Democrats scoffed. "This was about Davis, nothing else," said Democratic strategist Bill Carrick.
Now it's all about Arnold. On election night, he and his extended family gathered in the baronial suite on the 19th floor of the Century Plaza Hotel, overlooking the foggy, nighttime landscape of L.A. The hotel was a famed place of celebration for Ronald Reagan, among other Republican luminaries. The background noise there last Tuesday night consisted of popping corks, clinking champagne glasses and laughter. Schwarzenegger patrolled the rooms like the director he had been, posing for pictures, writing parts on the fly for the cast that surrounded him. OK, he said to one friend, you can be minister of food. Another would be minister of information. He jokingly told a fellow in the car business that he could be head of Caltrans--the public-transit authority. It was all in good fun, a fantasy script for a fantasy movie. Outside and down below there was another story: a $12 billion budget deficit, a menacing Democratic legislature, a raft of seemingly unfulfillable promises he'd made to protect social programs that Californians love. But that was real life--which would begin in the morning.