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Electing the ‘outsider’ Schwarzenegger

Gary Caruso | Friday, October 3, 2003

The latest California gubernatorial poll placed actor Arnold Schwarzenegger ahead of more than 130 candidates. Polling at 40 percent, Schwarzenegger outdistanced his nearest rival and the only prominent Democrat in the race, Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante, by 8 percentage points. It appears that his assertion as an outsider is capturing the fancy of California voters.

Many have compared Schwarzenegger’s political rise with the career of fellow actor Ronald Reagan. They contend that both were political outsiders whose jump into the California gubernatorial race launched their political activism. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Reagan’s political expertise runs “Hummers” over Schwarzenegger’s political past. Reagan served as the union president of the Screen Actor’s Guild and wrote a syndicated political column. Reagan, having once been a Democrat, converted to Barry Goldwater’s conservative philosophy and used the phrase, “peace through strength,” in a 1964 televised commercial for Goldwater. Reagan’s strength emanated from his understanding of politics and his firm set of beliefs.

Schwarzenegger has slyly decried the grasp of “special interests” on the state government. He broadly proclaims that he will cut excesses, not raise taxes and bring stability to the state government. He offers his “outsider” status as the solution to the state’s ills.

Political cycles are as regular as weather cycles. A political party in office will eventually lose favor with the public regardless of how well matters of state are run. Those cycles can last for decades when the public is content, or can change often when discontent prevails. During turbulent times, while an outsider can be the rhetorical answer, the fact is that the outsider as an elected official can be a public disappointment.

Three factors determine how an outsider will perform in office – common sense instincts, campaign funding and political staff. Any candidate can rhyme a catch phrase into office, but will only survive if decisions in office are sound and executed by savvy staff. While ideology plays a role in all political administrations, it cannot play the preeminent role in every decision. Elected officials often become paralyzed when an ideology becomes a theology.

Presidential history of the past fifty years is a good gauge of how well outsiders have fared in politics. A war-weary electorate chose General Eisenhower to end the American involvement in the Korean War and preside over the calm decade of the 1950s. Eisenhower’s pragmatic principles were not skewed by a zealous ideology or staff.

Watergate weary Americans turned to outsider and born-again Christian Jimmy Carter who promised to be truthful. Carter’s hands-on work ethic overwhelmed him in the Oval Office. His “honest” rhetoric describing a national malaise served to demoralize the public. More importantly, his inexperienced inner circle clashed with fellow Democrats on Capitol Hill, creating an appearance of disharmony.

An Iranian hostage, weary public turned to Ronald Reagan whose principles and rhetoric had been in place for two decades. Reagan’s positive vision of the future contrasted with the Carter perspective. Reagan surrounded himself with the most experienced and savvy professional staff available. While his conservative political appointees were the first in decades to infiltrate government ranks, only Oliver North let ideology overstep the bounds of common sense stewardship.

Recession weary voters rebuffed George Bush who could not compete with the Reagan mystique. Bush did not enunciate strong principles like Reagan. Bush appeared out of touch with Americans, and seemed to focus on international matters over domestic policies. Voters decided to give outsider Bill Clinton an opportunity to implement his policy to “Put Americans First.”

Sex scandal weary voters who saw the 2000 election as their chance to judge Bill Clinton, held Al Gore responsible for Clinton’s actions and voted for outsider George W. Bush. While many conservatives try to paint Clinton as a liberal, core Democrats opposed his moderate Southerner approach to traditional Republican issues like welfare reform, trade agreements and more state participation in federal programs. Clinton staffers were politically pragmatic, but also opportunistic in fundraising.

In the 1990s, campaign fundraising on both the state and federal levels reached new heights as runaway special interest excesses infiltrated both political parties. Today it remains a hindrance to the political process. Recently the president and Republican Party already broke all-time records for next year’s election. In California, individual interests have lined up behind both Schwarzenegger and Bustamante, causing both to face fundraising criticism.

Since campaign funding is the root of special interest influence, the next California governor must either embrace individual interests or lack for funding. If outsider Schwarzenegger wins, his instincts and staff will play an integral part of his success. But in his 2006 reelection effort, financial reports will ultimately show if Schwarzenegger is really an outsider. Odds are that without serious campaign finance reform in California, Schwarzenegger will not be the outsider he purports to be today.

Gary Caruso served as a public and legisilative affairs director in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.