TCS Daily

The Presidentinator?

By Michael Rosen - September 2, 2004 12:00 AM

On Tuesday Night, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger assumed the national stage and, through a strong show of support for President Bush, boosted his own prospects of attaining the nation's highest office. Coupled with his astounding rise to power and success in the Golden State, Arnold's speech, resonant with traditional Republican themes in the realms of foreign and domestic policy, has forced the national GOP to consider him a major player. And despite serious obstacles and drawbacks to a potential Schwarzenegger candidacy, Republicans ought to welcome his ideas and presence to the big show.

The governor's address helped cement his ties to the Republican mainstream and even to the legacy of President Nixon. The speech, if not exactly eloquent, was commanding, humorous, and optimistic. Invoking his childhood in an Austria partially occupied by Soviet troops, Schwarzenegger delivered a poignant reminder of America's recent struggle against, and victory over, one form of tyranny. He deftly connected his personal journey to the American ideals of liberty, free enterprise, and individualism.

Arnold also displayed a sharp but friendly sense of humor. Concluding a list of Republican virtues, he derided opponents of Bush's tax cuts as "economic girlie men." He also gently mocked the Democrats' "Two Americas" theme by pointing to the wartime unity President Bush has labored to foster. True negativity was nowhere to be found; Schwarzenegger declined to criticize John Kerry, a personal friend whom the governor has called a "terrific human being." Instead, Arnold captured the enthusiasm and patriotism of those who are Americans by choice, a group to which the GOP badly needs to reach out.

Yet the governor's successful speech came as no surprise to most Californians for whom his leadership has been nothing short of eye-opening. Nearly a year has elapsed since the historic recall election that vaulted his political career and his star has continued to sparkle ever since. Schwarzenegger has worked well with both parties -- no small feat given the polarization in the Statehouse -- and has successfully reformed a bloated workers' compensation program, floated a $15 billion bond to close the budget gap, and capped spending.

Arnold has also attracted fawning media attention with clever hijinks such as flouting the spirit, if not the letter, of California's anti-smoking laws by erecting an outsized tent-cum-humidor on the Capitol lawn in which he invites legislators of all stripes to share a cigar or two.

Most interestingly, Schwarzenegger has governed by referendum, or at least by threat of referendum. When negotiations with Democrats over a given issue turn sour, the governor wields the hammer of taking his case directly to the voters of California, as he did successfully with the bond. While referenda may not play on the national stage, appealing to the people to pressure their congressmen has well served several presidents. As Samuel Kernell argues in Going Public (CQ Books, 1997), President Reagan with his tax cuts and President Clinton during the 1995 government shutdown enjoyed success in using the public to circumvent Congress.

Yet for all this promise, a Schwarzenegger presidential run would encounter several key obstacles. First, Sacramento Democrats have begun to catch on to the governor's tactics, most recently limiting the extent of his spending cap through delay and cunning compromise. In general, going public, as Kernell himself acknowledges, can only be effective under certain circumstances. Nevertheless, Arnold's approval ratings in a rather liberal state are at a whopping 65% and his style of governing California's 30 million people may well translate to the U.S. as a whole.

Second, the governor's stances on social issues are distinctly unpalatable to the GOP's base. His liberal attitude toward abortion and gay marriage, for instance, place him as squarely within California's political mainstream as they remove him from the cultural norm of the Republican party. While social moderates like John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, Republicans who delivered brilliant speeches the night before Arnold's, are thought of as suitable presidential candidates in 2008, Arnold's liberal social tendencies far outstrip those of his potential rivals.

Yet as the governor stressed in his convention speech, in the midst of the war on terror and changing economic times, the critical defining features of conservatism today are steadfastness in support of liberty and continued faith in the promise of free markets. While much can be made of the differences between President Bush and Governor Schwarzenegger, at root the two strongly agree on these core principles of conservative doctrine. Bringing political and economic freedom to peoples who have lacked both, and standing tall in the face of a new tyranny along the way, are as broad in their appeal as they are critical in our time.

Finally, and perhaps most obviously, Arnold may not become president under the Constitution, which limits the office to "natural born citizen[s]." In fact, eligibility for the presidency is the only distinction between native and naturalized citizens and it has held for over two hundred years. Yet this absolute bar to a Schwarzenegger administration may itself be under attack. Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Rep. Vic Snyder (D-Ark.) have each sponsored constitutional amendments that would permit the election of non-native citizens of over 20 or 35 years, respectively. These proposals have attracted the support of academics like Yale Law professor Akhil Amar, conservatives such as James Taranto, and Democrats touting the prospects of rising star Jennifer Granholm, Michigan governor and Canadian native.

Such an amendment may be a good idea for two reasons. First, the original rationale for preventing naturalized citizens assuming the presidency has become outdated. The great Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story justified the ban because it "cuts off all chances for ambitious foreignors [sic] who might otherwise be intriguing for the office; and interposes a barrier against those corrupt interferences of foreign governments in executive elections." But today, no Prussian nobleman or Italian duke lurks in the background plotting to benefit their respective monarchs. In the modern analogue, a Saudi Arabian Islamist, for instance, who lived as a citizen in the U.S. for twenty years would be an unlikely Manchurian Candidate-type mole because such a figure would attract undue public attention and media scrutiny. By contrast, Schwarzenegger himself represents what is best about the immigrant experience. Why shouldn't all American children grow up wanting -- realistically -- to be president?

Furthermore, the presidential ban on non-native citizens currently appears to exclude individuals born on foreign soil to American citizen parents. While current law would not likely prevent John McCain, who was born in the Panama Canal Zone under American sovereignty, from seeking the presidency, it might well have barred George Romney, who ran for president as a Republican in 1968 but was born in Mexico. While this slice of the populace is admittedly narrow, it would include many members of the military and their children, as well as former Bush adviser Karen Hughes, who was born in Paris.

Whether the nascent campaign to amend the constitution in order to allow Schwarzenegger to run for president -- an idea anticipated in the 1993 film Demolition Man -- can get off the ground remains to be seen. And whether Arnold could win the nomination with support from conservative Republicans is an open question. But his convention address went a long way toward positioning him for national prominence. And if the presidency doesn't work out, there's always the California Senate race in 2006, when senior Senator Dianne Feinstein is expected to retire.

Michael M. Rosen, a TCS contributor, is an attorney in San Diego. He taught in Harvard's government department from 2001-2003.


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