Arnold Schwarzenegger gives one hell of a speech tonight. It’s the best speech I’ve seen at either of this year’s conventions. I bet he persuaded a lot of people who share some Republican attitudes but feel uncomfortable with the party’s hard core—people like me—to think seriously about voting for President Bush. If you’re one of those folks, I’d like to talk to you about why a Schwarzenegger Republican shouldn’t support Bush.
Schwarzenegger begins by recalling his childhood in Austria, then under partial Soviet occupation. He recounts his family’s terror of the Communist police state. He describes the joy and pride of finding freedom in America. Like so many passages in this beautiful speech, the story brims with Reaganesque reverence.
I’m a sucker for this stuff. I often think about the Soviet era and the people crushed under it. My liberal friends never talk about it and never seem to look back. I don’t remember my college classmates taking communism seriously as anything but an alternative ideal. This is one of the things that alienates me from the left. The world is full of people who seek power and menace others. The United States is the most important bulwark against these people. We must not be afraid to act. And imperfect as our freedoms are, we must never forget how precious they are.
“Today the world no longer fears the Soviet Union, and it is because of the United States of America,” Schwarzenegger thunders. The delegates applaud and begin chanting, “USA! USA!” I’m tempted to join in. Schwarzenegger describes coming to America in 1968 and watching the presidential race * between Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon. Humphrey’s positions “sounded like socialism,” Schwarzenegger recalls. Nixon, on the other hand, talked about “free enterprise, getting government off your back, lowering taxes, and strengthening the military.” From this, Schwarzenegger explains, he decided to become a Republican. He then delivers the most important pitch of the convention:
If you believe that government should be accountable to the people, not the people to the government, then you are a Republican. If you believe a person should be treated as an individual, not as a member of an interest group, then you are a Republican. If you believe your family knows how to spend your money better than the government does, then you are a Republican. If you believe that our educational system should be held accountable for the progress of our children, then you are a Republican. If you believe that this country, not the United Nations, is [the] best hope of democracy, then you are a Republican. And, ladies and gentlemen, if you believe we must be fierce and relentless and terminate terrorism, then you are a Republican.
I agree with every one of these things. I can see myself as a Schwarzenegger Republican. But I can’t vote for Bush.
Why not? Let’s start with that Humphrey-Nixon story. It conveys that Schwarzenegger’s understanding of the two parties is frozen in 1968. That’s a long time ago. Both parties have changed a lot. The Democrats under Bill Clinton rediscovered a centrist philosophy they had abandoned. They became more attentive to public safety and more friendly to free enterprise. The Republican Party also shifted—not to the center, but to the right. If you liked where Nixon stood in the late 1960s and early 1970s, you’re more likely to find similar policies 30 years later not in the administration of George W. Bush, but in the administration of Bill Clinton and possibly the administration of John Kerry.
It’s telling that Schwarzenegger says he’s “proud to belong to the party of Abraham Lincoln, the party of Teddy Roosevelt, the party of Ronald Reagan, and the party of George W. Bush.” The GOP under Bush is nothing like what it was under Lincoln or even Roosevelt. The notion of wartime deficit tax cuts would have made Lincoln ill.
There’s a curious gap in Schwarzenegger’s speech as he segues from his litany of Republican principles to the case for Bush. Essentially, the principles vanish. He stops talking about accountability and starts talking about faith. He asks for “faith in the resourcefulness of the American people, and faith in the U.S. economy. To those critics who are so pessimistic about our economy, I say: Don’t be economic girlie men!” The audience roars—it’s the loudest moment of the convention—but the descent from logic into grade-school humiliation is unpersuasive and revealing. The American economy is performing far below par. Bush got the tax cuts he wanted when he came into office. He said they would fix the economy. They didn’t. He will be the first president in Schwarzenegger’s lifetime to preside over a net loss of jobs. Accountability means that a president who gets his economic program and delivers results this bad gets fired.
Instead, Schwarzenegger resorts to the very unconservative tactic of inventing excuses. “America’s economy is moving ahead in spite of the recession [Bush] inherited and in spite of the attack on our homeland,” he says. Actually, the pace of growth has slowed again in recent months. And if every president can blame a bad economy on his predecessor, even three years after he has reversed the predecessor’s policies, then no president is accountable. Schwarzenegger implies that giving up on Bush would be un-American. “We may hit a few bumps, but America always moves ahead. That’s what Americans do,” he says. But remember that Republican principle about the government being accountable to the people. The suggestion that giving up on Bush means giving up on ourselves—which is essentially the argument of the Bush campaign—directly subverts this principle. Bush is your employee. You don’t have to vote for him just because he’s in charge and represents the spirit of the nation. That’s Communist talk.
Same goes for Bush’s Iraq policy. It’s a betrayal of everything Republicans claim to stand for—fiscal prudence, the reservation of U.S. military resources for the protection of the national interest, and skepticism of government’s ability to shape society. The weapons of mass destruction that Bush touted as the reason for spending our blood and treasure in Iraq are simply not there. We were not greeted with sweets and flowers as the administration suggested. We have lost nearly 1,000 soldiers. We have sunk about $200 billion into this mistake, and there is no end in sight. It’s a complete failure.
Unable to defend the policy, Schwarzenegger defends Bush as “a man of inner strength. He is a leader who doesn’t flinch, who doesn’t waver, who does not back down.” But “inner strength” is exactly the kind of New Age pap no hard-headed Republican should fall for. Accountability means judging a president by visible results. Schwarzenegger says leadership is “about making decisions you think are right and then standing behind those decisions.” Fine. But standing behind your decisions means taking responsibility at election time. This is election time, and Bush’s decisions have turned out to be disastrously wrong.
Schwarzenegger applauds Bush for taking a hard line on terrorism. So do I. Bush’s clarity on this subject is his finest quality. But it doesn’t make his foreign policy wise, any more than liberal piety about compassion makes liberal social programs effective. In Iraq, Bush has confused a mortal enemy with a less urgent one, and he has botched the worthy idea of American military leadership by biting off more than we can chew. The hatred manifested by terrorists “is no match for America’s decency,” Schwarzenegger opines. Decency? Do you think we’re going to defeat Osama Bin Laden with decency? That’s liberal talk. What we need is smart allocation of our resources. At this, Bush has utterly failed.
I’m no huge fan of John Kerry. He sees two sides of every one-sided issue, and four sides of every two-sided issue. But the alternative is a president who sees one side of every issue, no matter how many sides it has. Given how many sides there usually are, and given how little effort Bush makes to learn about each issue, the odds are that, on average, he’ll pick the wrong side. The record of the last four years shows that he has done precisely that. But because Bush refuses to “waver,” as Schwarzenegger charitably puts it, we keep going in the wrong direction. The only way to stop such a president is to vote him out of office. Fortunately, an election is coming.
Correction, Sept. 1, 2004: I initially wrote that Schwarzenegger described the Humphrey-Nixon exchange as a debate. I misunderstood him. There were no debates in that campaign. He was talking about watching both candidates and comparing their positions. (Return to corrected sentence.)