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Conservative California: No Longer an Oxymoron?
Eric Tung • A native assesses the Governator.
Commencement 2004

In a wacky state populated by lunatic leftists and controlled by formidable unions and liberal interest groups, my governor was unafraid to proclaim himself a conservative upon election. His gubernatorial victory on October 8, 2003 gave California new hope. As a Californian, I was excited to hear Arnold espouse his economic conservatism in the days leading up to the recall, and was even more pleased to see my governor take action to implement his promises. Just days after entering office, Schwarzenegger took concrete steps to make the state more fiscally responsible by reforming workers’ compensation, repealing the tax on vehicle licensing fees, and closing the more than $10 billion deficit through voter-backed propositions.

But despite Arnold’s Friedmanesque disdain for increased government taxation and avowed fiscal restraint, Republicans have criticized many of his political stances. His support of a woman’s right to choose, gun control, and affirmative action cast doubt on Arnold’s social conservatism. Many Californians on the right also take issue with Arnold’s education policy. Although he promised cuts in education spending, Arnold now aims to fund more after-school programs and increase allocations to California’s public school system after revenue starts pouring into Sacramento. Team Arnold is hoping that increased business contracts and private consumption will fuel the economic upturn, which has not seen the light of day since the dot-com collapse.

Many staunch conservatives in California have given Arnold flak because of these socially liberal tendencies. In their eyes, his governorship is a blow to cultural conservatism, no better than social inclinations on the Left. True, Arnold’s conservatism is not entirely aligned with the Religious Right, or with strict constitutionalists, or with reactionaries who decry the protections afforded under civil rights legislation. However, his brand of conservatism reveals the emphasis he places on traditional family values and the American Dream. In support of traditional, heterosexual marriage, Arnold openly confronted Gavin Newsom, the newly elected mayor of San Francisco, who recently allowed the city to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. Demonstrating his respect for federalism, Arnold told Newsom that gay marriage was explicitly prohibited by state law.

Arnold has encountered further opposition within the conservative movement on his immigration policy. His stance towards California’s immigrants reflects a pragmatism that is sidelined by both stalwart libertarians who advocate open borders and strong traditionalists who believe in closed borders and deportation. Schwarzenegger strikes the middle ground by urging federal funding for border enforcement and seeking measures, through workers’ visas, that gradually assimilate and legitimize Mexican immigrant workers. He is against outright amnesty, which would only reward these illegal aliens, but he understands the impracticalities associated with deportation. An Austrian-born immigrant himself, he respects the contributions immigrants have made to this country.

Yet Arnold, because of his membership on the advisory board of U.S. English, a group that seeks to make English the official language of the United States, is unpopular in some communities. Many Hispanics clamor for him to step down and see his stance against bilingual education, which was made illegal in 1998, as destructive to Hispanic culture in California. Impervious to these multi-culturalist attacks, Arnold firmly believes in the importance of monolingual education in schools and maintains that immigrant success is contingent on learning English as quickly as possible.

In sum, to brand Schwarzenegger a social liberal is not altogether accurate. His stances on social policy are rooted in the pursuit of the American Dream and a healthy adherence to traditional values. His genuine intuition concerning government is also very good news: “I believe that every good idea that was ever done in the world came from a grassroots organization, or from one person. They did something and it mushroomed and grew, and eventually the government heard about it and it was enacted. It has to start on a level where the cities take care of themselves; it can’t start at the federal government and trickle down.” Arnold’s gung-ho attitude toward individualism is music to conservative ears. So why does Arnold’s conservatism remain so inconsistent? The answer is largely pragmatic: California’s populace is too culturally diverse and politically liberal to make an ultra-conservative gubernatorial agenda possible. Although the 2002 candidate, Bill Simon, was more ideologically faithful to conservative values than Richard Riordan, the opponent he defeated in the Republican primary, he stood no chance against the more moderate Davis. This defeat for the Republicans set back the conservative movement in California.

Tackling the issues one by one, Arnold’s position as governor breathes new life into California’s conservative movement. His ability to reach compromises which advance the conservative cause and make California a home once again for the entrepreneurial spirit is a refreshing change from the stagnant leadership of his predecessor, Gray Davis. A recent example is the passage of a workers’ compensation bill that will reduce fraud and lower business liability. Despite his popularity among both parties, Schwarzenegger did not hesitate to strong-arm the Democrat-dominated Legislature in the passage of this bill. He threatened to sign in a more radical workers’ compensation initiative if the Legislature did not pass his version, and they caved. In the spirit of his respect for individual autonomy, Schwarzenegger took Propositions 57 and 58, legislation that would issue bond money and balance the budget, directly to the people, knowing that budgetary issues would undoubtedly encounter gridlock in the House and Assembly. They passed without trouble.

In his six months in office, Arnold has shown that he can get things done. The dirty reality is that politics requires a lot of compromise between a candidate’s personal ideology and the concerns particular to his base of voters; Schwarzenegger’s seemingly weak conservatism is an inevitable product of these pragmatic concerns. Nonetheless, his form of Republican centrism is exactly what California needs.

Eric Tung is a rising junior in Branford College.


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