Arnold, Rush Battle for Republican Party's Soul
By Kevin Hassett
March 26 (Bloomberg) -- Last week, two titans of American popular culture had a dustup. It was Arnold versus Rush for the heavyweight championship.
Much of the news coverage focused on the outsized personalities of the two, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh. But the content of their exchange was surprisingly important. Indeed, this squabble may well receive extensive treatment in the history books.
The Republican Party is at a historical crossroads. If you are Republican, the odds are you're ideologically either with Rush or Arnold. Only one side can win. And as is so often the case, California is the canary in the political coal mine of America.
Republicans seeking to run the federal government are bedeviled by the opposition of Democrats. In California, it's much worse. Someone is going to try Schwarzenegger's approach of bipartisan governance at the federal level, and soon.
If you are a conservative governing California, you face an almost impossible challenge. A large proportion of the political might in the state is held by those whose views are closer to those of a typical labor union representative than those of, say, a scholar at Palo Alto's conservative Hoover Institution. So you have to choose between approaches.
Years of Inaction
First, you can try to present conservative ideas, like school vouchers, to the people in so convincing a manner that they collectively urge politicians of all persuasions to vote with you. Second, you can work with those of opposing views and negotiate compromises.
Ever since President Ronald Reagan departed from Washington, there has been no politician capable of effectively employing the first strategy. The results have been many years of policy inaction, fiddling while Washington burns.
Ideologically, enough Republicans are still with Reagan that they can't stomach compromise, but politically, no leader has been able to rally enough support to create momentum for conservative policies. So nothing happens.
Schwarzenegger has decided that the state's problems are so pressing that inaction is no longer an option. As a result, he has chosen to compromise with Democrats, or even at times, jumped out in front of them in areas that have traditionally been Republican taboo.
`Typical Sellout Move'
The result has been a higher minimum wage, aggressive steps toward reducing reliance on carbon-based fuels, and plans for the provision of universal health care.
This movement to the left has boosted his popularity. Schwarzenegger's latest job-approval rating is 48 percent, a considerable climb from 37 percent in 2005.
But popularity might come at the expense of principle. Limbaugh said as much, stating provocatively that Schwarzenegger was a traitor: ``Now, here's the truth of the matter,'' he said. ``Arnold Schwarzenegger has done the typical sellout move. He has sold out, and there are too many conservatives selling out these days.''
Those words brought out the Terminator in Schwarzenegger. ``Rush Limbaugh is irrelevant,'' he replied. ``I'm not his servant.''
Later, Schwarzenegger appeared on Limbaugh's radio show, and the exchange was lively and telling. Limbaugh railed against the $1.25 increase in the minimum wage. Schwarzenegger defended himself, saying the Democrats wanted $2.50.
The exchange continued in that vein, until Rush closed with this telling summary: ``The problem with that is the liberals and the Democrats aren't going to punt their ideology, because it defines them. And so when we end up agreeing with them just to get compromise, even if the numbers they want aren't as much as they wanted, we are still compromising our ideology. They are not.''
If you could find a workable crystal ball and tune it forward to the first major debate of the Republican presidential primaries, my guess is that the main point of contention would be the same.
Some candidates will refrain from laying out strong policies and will argue that the country urgently needs to come together to address long-run problems such as the entitlement programs that are headed for financial ruin. That can only be done, it will be argued, if Republicans are willing to compromise with Democrats.
A Clear Victor
Others will describe explicit conservative policies -- a flat tax and Social Security privatization, for example -- and will passionately argue the merits of those reforms.
The compromisers will call the traditional conservatives unrealistic and ideological obstacles. The traditional conservatives will call the compromisers sellouts. The voters will have the difficult job of choosing between them.
How will they choose? Schwarzenegger's might seems to suggest that the compromisers will win, but I am not so sure. Republican policy in the past six years, especially the burgeoning size of government, has been so far from mainline conservative theory, that many in the party must hunger for a candidate who returns the party to its roots.
If you read Rush's exchange with Arnold, there was a clear victor. Rush won by a knockout. It is hard to imagine that a presidential debate covering the same territory would go differently.
(Kevin Hassett is director of economic-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He was chief economic adviser to Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona during the 2000 primaries. The opinions expressed are his own.)