POLITICAL LABELS

Daniel Henninger argues in today’s WSJ that Arnold Schwarzenegger is actually a conservative:

On Tuesday, more than seven million restless Californians voted to replace their governor, and once the tectonic plates of this recall-cum-gubernatorial election stopped shifting, the one political monument that I saw lying in pieces was the traditional notion of just who and what constitutes a “moderate.” As of Tuesday’s reordering in California, I think the definition of political “moderate” has shifted seismically to the right.

Back in Washington, where nothing much ever changes, pundits still cite Nelson Rockefeller (a name with no meaning to most voters now) as the quintessential Republican “moderate.” Or they admire current GOP Senators like Olympia Snowe, Lincoln Chafee and George Voinovich. On the core governing issue of the state’s proper role in economic and political life, Arnold Schwarzenegger is well to the right of these people, no matter what he thinks about abortion, gay civil unions, gun control or medical marijuana.
Arnold is not your Republican father’s “moderate.” Those traditional Republican moderates have long been accepted into polite political circles only if they understand that their proper place in Sacramento, Albany or Washington is to serve as pliant small-town lending officers to the dominant Democratic leadership. Say a Democrat wants to spend $4 billion; the GOP “moderate” will counter with $3.5 billion–and then they’ll compromise at $3.95 billion. Arnold Schwarzenegger ran against this theory of a moderate Republicanism that is complicit in a long liberal legacy of tax, spend and tax again. Put it this way: Anyone who thinks George Shultz, who was at the Schwarzenegger victory party, would put himself behind an old-school Republican moderate has been overdosing on medical marijuana.

If after this week the definition of a GOP moderate now sits halfway between the center and what the avowedly conservative Tom McClintock represents, then the “center” in American politics is migrating steadily to the right in a measurable and significant way. And of course by definition this would move the Democratic base even further leftward from the mainstream. It’s too early to know how permanent California’s shifts are, but I suspect that a lot of voters who participated in or watched this election for the first time feel comfortable in this new political place–where Arnold is.

This is all quite interesting but strained. Lincoln Chafee and Olympia Snowe aren’t moderate Republicans; they’re liberals. Is Schwarzenegger to their right on some fiscal issues? Yes. But he’s right there with them on key social issues that are at the heart of conservatism. Being for low taxes alone doesn’t define the conservative movement.

I’m not sure Nelson Rockefeller is a useful metric, as his era was sufficiently long ago that I don’t remember it. Which also means that most issues on the agenda have shifted over time. On most social and foreign policy issues, the “radical right” is about where John Kennedy was in 1960. Positions on race relations that would have made one a wild-eyed lefty in 1970 are now on the far right.

FILED UNDER: US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.