Word was that Arnold was going to speak, to warm up the crowd, but he didn't.
He could have bounded onto the stage, but he didn't.
Instead, he escorted the frail but dignified Nancy Reagan, but even accounting for that sobering effect, Arnold seemed a little distant at the first Republican debate.
As California governor, Schwarzenegger has prospered in the role of centrist, hybrid "Repubocrat" —an independent force. As he watched the ten GOP presidential candidates take turns bowing to the GOP's conservative base, the Governator bore the fixed smile of a man who had a desire to be elsewhere.
If I were a GOP strategist—or a Democratic one—I would be worried by Arnold's body language. He and other major independent actors on the political scene—New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Vice President Al Gore, chief among them—comprise a Third Force that could upset two-party politics as we know it in the 2008 presidential race.
Indeed, although there is no formal alliance, Schwarzenegger, Bloomberg and Gore have formed a mutual admiration society that has huge potential implications for 2008. They have come to share similar visions on the urgency of the global warming and health care crises, and a similar impatience with politics as usual.
This could be the year of the Third Force.
The calendar is one crucial reason. Major, populous states—with the silent encouragement of well-funded candidates such as Sen. Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani—are leapfrogging each other to hold their primaries on early, influential dates. Prompted by Arnold, California has done so. Florida has as well.
As a result, there is now a solid chance that we will know the identity of the GOP and Democratic nominees by February 6, 2008, a full seven months before the political party conventions in Minneapolis and Denver, respectively.
There has never been a period like it in presidential campaigning. Nature abhors a vacuum; so does politics. Buyers' remorse among Republicans and Democrats will have eons of time to set in; independents, as numerous as party loyalists, will have little to do but nurse their dissatisfaction.
If I'm Bloomberg, with a net worth of $5 billion and unconcealed ambition to run as an independent, Third Force candidate, this is the '08 schedule I dream about.
Independent trail now well blazed
Since the days of George Wallace in the 1960s and John Anderson in 1980, it's gotten easier and easier to get on the ballot as a minor party or independent candidate. At this point, the trail is well-blazed, and an easy one to walk for someone with the will and the wallet of the New York media mogul.
But the New York mayor isn't the only figure worth looking at in this context.
An Austrian immigrant, Schwarzenegger can't run, of course. But he has vowed, publicly and privately, to play a big role in the '08 process. Most have interpreted that to mean a big role in the GOP race—which is true as far as it goes. But if he thinks the party's nominee is too far to the right (that is, if the GOP doesn't pick Rudy or Sen. John McCain), he'll look elsewhere.
Some Democratic wise guys predict that Al Gore will enter the Democratic primary race this fall. A close Tennessee friend of his told me gravely the other day, "Al is doing cardio." That was supposed to mean the Big Guy is getting in shape for the Dem race. I doubt it. Polls show that Democrats are reasonably content with their field of contenders. Hillary, Obama and Edwards are formidable.
But as Gore and Bloomberg say nice things about each other, in public and private, there is another possibility: that the former vice president would consider, or support, an independent candidacy outside of the traditional process. There already is a Green Party, by the way, that has been successful at getting on state ballots.
Other key players who could be part of this Third Force include Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, a man without a comfortable home in his own party any more. And Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, an anti-war activist who was on the verge of announcing for the GOP nomination, but changed his mind at the last minute.
If you hear that Lieberman and Hagel are getting together to hash out a common position on Iraq—not an easy thing to achieve, to be sure—then you know something is up.
In the meantime, keep an eye on the independents. There's where the action is, and will be.