As goes California, so goes the nation,” the old adage says. But, looking at the direction the Republican nomination fight is going, we may want to supplant it with “be careful what you wish for.”
Donald Trump has been at that top of the polls since his announcement more than 100 days ago, and it doesn’t look like he’s going anywhere anytime soon. His brash, tell-it-like-it-is style appeals to an electorate — rightly — fed up with our usual politicians.
It’s also reminiscent of another super star-turned politico: Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Twelve years ago, Californians fired Gov. Gray Davis and picked the movie megastar out of a ballot of 109 names to replace him.
Schwarzenegger vowed to “blow up the boxes,” “cut up the credit cards” and give the Capitol a “clean sweep.” His rhetoric resonated with voters angry about ballooning budget deficits, tripled taxes and the fact that the lights kept shutting off.
Like Arnold, Donald is tapping into that anger — anger over a federal government spending more than the record amount of tax dollars it takes in, the seemingly constant reminders of ineptitude and a foreign policy flailing in the wind.
It should could come as no surprise that NBC is taking a chance on Schwarzenegger to replace Trump on “The Apprentice.” Of those Schwarzenegger might call “girlie men,” Trump asks, “How stupid are they?”
But should America follow California’s foray into celebrity leadership?
Schwarzenegger arrived in Sacramento and repealed Davis’ tripling of the car tax, took on workers’ compensation reform and began to make inroads on the state’s structural deficit. But then it all came to a screaming halt.
The public employees unions blocked his reform measures in the Capitol and at the ballot box. After the successes of his first year, the former Mr. Universe was a failure.
He couldn’t vanquish the state’s problems like a movie villain. Instead, he threw in the towel and caved to Democrats in the Legislature on green house gas emissions, minimum wage hikes and more state spending.
California’s unemployment rate was at 6.8 percent in 2003. When Schwarzenegger left office it was at 12.2 percent. The $38 billion deficit Davis left us was at $25.4 billion, lower, but defintely not gone. And the state’s debt obligations surged from $27.6 billion to $76.5 billion.
At the end of his term, Schwarzenegger’s approval rating was just 1 percentage point higher than that of the fired governor before him. Despite the tough talk and bravado, Schwarzenegger’s act as governor was worse than his performance in “Last Action Hero.”
What’s more, the California Republican Party has since been eviscerated — all but swept from Sacramento. Schwarzenegger left no legacy for it to stand on.
“California got what we deserved — he was not heavyweight, that’s for sure,” Christopher Thornberg, a California expert at Beacon Economics, said 10 years after the recall. “He didn’t accomplish very much. He didn’t really understand politics, though I think his heart was in the right place.”
Which is why we should be wary of Trump.
Trump has sucked all the air out of the room, attracting so much attention that more qualified candidates cannot be heard. Schwarzenegger did the same thing, beating out then-state Sen. Tom McClintock — possibly the smartest and well-versed candidate running.
Perhaps most worrisome is that both men crave approval. Trump says he only attacks those who attack him, and praises the likes of Kanye West simply because he’s “wonderful” and “has always been nice to me.”
Schwarzenegger “loved to be loved, and that’s a dangerous thing in public office,” McClintock said. “He had no particular point of view. I found him to be largely disinterested in the details of policy, and he ended up dramatically breaking every major promise that he made to reduce the tax and regulatory burdens that were crushing the state.”
Some point to Ronald Reagan, also a Hollywood star who became the most successful and admired Republican politician of the last 100 years.
But Trump — and Schwarzenegger, for that matter — is no Ronald Reagan.
Reagan spent years traveling the country for General Electric, delivering speeches on policy and honing his conservative message — he did not jump into politics simply because the timing was right to win, or to satisfy a fragile ego.
Trump has no such record. In fact, like Arnold, Donald’s conservative bona fides are murky — if they can be found.
Trump may end up being the answer the G.O.P. is looking for. But looking at what happened in California, the Republicans should be wary of leaving the party — and the country — in his hands.