In a year when Republicans are slouching toward a post-Bush era, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger says he has a winning strategy for his party — be like me.
California's popular governor is known for his kaleidoscopic political stripes, and that's his point. He said Republicans could face a future of Election Day misery unless the party makes a decisive shift to the political center and claims issues usually associated with the Democratic agenda, like global warming and health-care reform.
"We are dying at the box office," the actor-politician told party activists last week, lamenting a decline in Republican registration that cost the party 370,000 voters in California since 2005. "Our party has lost the middle."
An Arnold Republican?
Schwarzenegger's blunt warning left some of the party faithful asking if he is a Republican at all. But far from proposing radical notions, Schwarzenegger entered a national debate about the future of the party that has been taking stock of President Bush's ebbing popularity, a rapidly diversifying population and election losses last year that put the House and Senate in Democratic control.
His speech came at a time when the leading Republican presidential candidate in national polls is a former Democrat who supports abortion rights, gay rights and gun control — not exactly foundation stones of the right. Rudy Giuliani, who as New York mayor talked about transcending party labels and endorsed liberal lion Mario Cuomo for governor in 1994, could hardly be described as a conservative's conservative.
"The Republican Party got a big shock in November 2006 and it's trying to figure out what it means and what to do about it," said William A. Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.
Can Schwarzenegger — who's had frayed ties with conservatives over state spending and debt — change anything?
Some consider the party's setbacks short-term. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican who followed the governor to the podium at a state party convention, said the reason the party lost control of Congress "is not because our ideas lost their luster, but our leaders lost their way."
Perry criticized gay marriage and spoke in favor of strict abortion regulation, while stressing the party needs to adhere to an agenda of lower taxes and tightfisted spending.
But others believe the nation is emerging from a conservative era that dates to the late 1970s and the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan. Some polls suggest young adults — the next generation of voters — tend to be more liberal-minded than their parents, particularly on social issues.
"There appears to be a renewed public appetite for government action in a number of areas where conservatives have typically not taken the lead," Galston said, citing health care and climate change.
Social versus fiscal conservatives
Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley, said Giuliani's popularity suggests a significant slice of the party wants to play down social conservatism, though that group may not represent a majority.
"I sense there are fiscal conservatives and non-Southerners who want less pandering to the Republican right," Cain said. "They are worried that if the party becomes very nativist, the party will lose a generation of Latino and Asian voters."
Schwarzenegger never sold himself as an ideological purist — he's labeled himself an "Arnold Republican" and "post-partisan" to describe his hybrid-style politics that runs from supporting the death penalty to backing reproductive rights.
When he recommended the party take on issues with broad public appeal, like his own crusade to curb global warming, he was speaking from practical experience. He leads a state that has voted Democratic in the last four presidential elections, and Democrats control both U.S. Senate seats, the legislature and most statewide offices.
His near-landslide re-election last year was attributed largely to his ability to attract independent and Democratic votes in a state with a meager 34 percent Republican registration.
Democratic registration is sliding, too, while independents comprise the fastest growing group of voters in the state. He boosted his standing in polls by cutting deals with Democratic leaders to boost the minimum wage, fight global warming and provide low-cost prescription drugs — bills enacted with just a sprinkle of Republican votes.
How does the party win elections?
By "including, not excluding. By being open to new ideas," the governor said. "The majority of Republicans prefer progress with messy compromise over defeat with pristine principles."
As he sees it, that's the heart of the issue.