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Schwarzenegger stumbles, but can still recover

By Carol Devine-Molin
web posted August 18, 2003

The Schwarzenegger campaign has made a significant blunder - a miscalculation that has caused considerable consternation among the ranks of the GOP. Choosing financier Warren Buffett to head-up Schwarzenegger's economic team has sent precisely the wrong message to Republican voters. Not surprisingly, Republican challenger Bill Simon is initiating radio commercials that will capitalize on Arnold's misstep.

Buffett suggested that property taxes be raised in California, which is considered anathema to the conservative GOP crowd that holds the Reaganesque dictum, "Thou shall raise no taxes" as sacred and inviolate. This is hardly hyperbole. We all know that breaking his "no new tax" pledge was the undoing of Bush senior in 1992. It's not unusual for a Republican to remind with a smile that we (the GOP) were placed on this planet for the purpose of lowering taxes.

In a state where the GOP is slipping and sliding toward the fate of the dodo bird, many pragmatic Republicans were willing to endorse Schwarzenegger's gubernatorial candidacy predicated upon his fiscal conservatism and star-power appeal. They were inclined to give Schwarzenegger a considerable pass on his Left-leaning social philosophy (views that are notably widespread in California) if he stayed true-blue to the basic tenets of Reaganomics with tax-cutting at the forefront. Of course, the GOP is painfully aware that Democrats have a formidable 1.4 million voter registration advantage over Republicans in California.

But when Arnold's campaign selected Warren Buffett as its economic pointman, a liberal Democrat cogently opposed to tax-cutting in general and Bush tax cuts in particular, it managed to alienate numerous Republicans in one fell swoop. Mr. Buffett is considered a sage when it comes to investing, but he's certainly not an expert on state fiscal policy and its attending political implications, which represent a bird of an entirely different feather (obviously, I'm on a roll with bird metaphors).
A supply-side advocate such as publishing tycoon Steve Forbes or economist Arthur Laffer would have made a terrific "economic guru" for Schwarzenegger, thereby sending an appropriate signal to the GOP faithful. Although Schwarzenegger's strategists persuaded former Reagan cabinet member George Shultz to join its "Economic Recovery Council", that alone is not sufficient to off-set the brewing discontent. Schwarzenegger must act quickly to assuage GOP conservatives and enlist their support.

And it only added insult to injury, and offended the sensibilities of social conservatives, when Schwarzenegger appointed actor Rob Lowe to reach out and organize others in the entertainment community on behalf of his campaign. Rob Lowe might have indeed eschewed his decadent ways and rehabilitated himself, but among the general public he will always be associated with a sex scandal involving an underaged girl. Just from a PR perspective, it would have been better if Arnold's team had chosen an entertainer with a more wholesome image to lead Schwarzenegger's cadre of Hollywood supporters. Moreover, it would be prudent for the Schwarzenegger campaign to quickly add a Hollywood co-chair with a more suitable reputation to counter the bad publicity, and one who is actually a Republican, to boot. I'm sure there are still a few individuals out in tinsel-land that can be enticed to come out of the GOP closet.

Smartly, Schwarzenegger is now tackling the difficulties engendered by Warren Buffett. The "Terminator" star is in full damage control mode by assiduously distancing himself from Buffett's awful views on property taxes. According to an August 16th Fox News article by Major Garrett, Schwarzenegger intends to keep property taxes low. Garrett notes that, "California voters passed Proposition 13 in 1978 in what political historians now regard as the beginning of a nationwide taxpayer revolt that fueled Ronald Reagan's campaign for president in 1980. The initiative reduced property taxes by 30 percent and mandated increases of only 2 percent per year, regardless of the increase in the property's value. Conservatives consider the initiative untouchable and a symbol of taxpayers rising up against the state's liberal establishment…As governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger would be a fierce defender of Proposition 13, Stutzman (a Schwarzenegger spokesman) told Fox News". To this I say, hip-hip-hooray!

Moreover, Arnold needs to come out and vociferously repudiate the notion of raising any type of taxes and fees on an already beleaguered Californian citizenry. And he must continue to reiterate a heartfelt promise to repeal the tripling of the automobile tax, an onerous and highly criticized tax that was pivotal in triggering the current Recall process. For an emerging generation of young voters, it would also be wise for Schwarzenegger (a la Reagan) to underscore the dynamic effects of tax cuts, which will revitalize the economy, encourage entrepreneurial activity, and create jobs over time. Cutting rampant government spending is only part of the overall equation in California - the other part involves cutting taxes for the purpose of growing the economy.

Unfortunately, Schwarzenegger's missteps are now reflected in his latest poll ratings. It's not that Arnold's numbers are tanking -- he's still poised to get about a quarter of the gubernatorial vote, the same as last week. However, he has failed to consolidate the overall GOP vote that is splintered among himself and three other Republican candidates. On the other hand, Democratic Lt. Governor Cruz Bustamante has surged in the polls and is now in a statistical dead heat with Schwarzenegger, demonstrating once again that the Democrats know how to work in tandem and coalesce around their frontrunner for the good of the party. As noted in an August 16th piece in the Washington Post, "The California Field Poll found 25 percent of registered voters opted for Bustamante, followed by 22 percent for Schwarzenegger. The other candidates trailed in single digits: State Sen. Tom McClintock took 9 percent; businessman Bill Simon won 8 percent; former baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth received 5 percent; all three are Republicans". The margin of error was about 5 percent.

Sure, Republicans are notorious for grasping defeat from the jaws of victory. The truth of the matter is that GOP members have never been that politically disciplined and are sometimes apt to undermine the chances of a party win. That said, the good news is that Arnold Schwarzenegger can still successfully woo grassroots Republicans by articulating the salient GOP tax-cutting message and distancing himself from Warren Buffett's unhelpful opinions. And I certainly wouldn't underestimate Schwarzenegger's capacity to negotiate the pitfalls in this race.

Carol Devine-Molin is a regular contributor to several online magazines.

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