Hey, Arnold: Just Be a Winner!

What do conservatives demand from a citizen aspiring to high office? How important are their rigid objections to abortion and gay adoption? Does character count? The recall campaign in California, and more specifically Arnold Schwarzenegger’s candidacy for the governorship as a Republican, offers an amusing lesson in what can happen when right-wing moralists are tempted by power and celebrity.

The reception accorded Mr. Schwarzenegger on the right was quite chilly at first. In early August, for instance, Rush Limbaugh warned the faithful multitude of dittoheads not to be fooled by any conservative orgasms over his powerfully packed bikini, because his own words prove he’s not a conservative. Newsmax.com, the shrieking right-wing Web site subsidized by Richard Mellon Scaife, gave prominence to the rantings of the Reverend Lou Sheldon, direct-mail windbag and man of the cloth: “As Governor, Mr. Schwarzenegger would be a darker villain than any he has faced in his movies, sinking the Golden State into a moral vacuum.” Michael Reagan, the right-wing talk jock, scoffed at swooning comparisons with his father, the former President, calling Mr. Schwarzenegger nothing but an actor and noting that there is a big difference politically between them.

Reservations about Mr. Schwarzenegger’s political pedigree and personal history were at first almost universal on the Republican right. How could the churchgoing conservatives of Orange County be expected to vote for a steroid-soaked actor, who has been filmed puffing on a joint and photographed with a topless babe on his shoulders? (His recently excavated 1977 interview with Oui magazine, complete with accounts of gang-bangs and orgies, may also disturb the self-proclaimed pro-family Republicans in his camp-if they are capable of embarrassment.) His peccadilloes make Bill Clinton and Arnold’s pal-by-marriage, Ted Kennedy, look like altar boys. He embodies the dissolute Hollywood liberalism imagined by conservatives in their voyeuristic daydreams.

Worse still, at one of the most critical moments for conservatism in recent years, Mr. Schwarzenegger sided not with conservatives, but with the hated Clintons. He publicly denounced the Starr investigation as an embarrassment and said that he would find it hard to forgive the Republican Party for its sexual persecution of the Democratic President.

More importantly, his positions on social issues certainly sound more Clintonite than Reaganite. Although he’s supported Republican candidates and libertarian organizations, his political views don’t vary greatly from those of the moviemaking community in which he lives. He supports abortion rights. He supports gun controls and environmental protections. He supports gay rights, including the right to adoption. He has been heard to say that he enjoys paying his taxes. His top advisers include Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor who happens to be a Democrat and an outspoken opponent of the Bush tax cuts.

But he’s a Republican. So, suddenly, almost as if they had been run through some Manchurian brain-washing factory, the nation’s leading conservatives have decided that even if Arnold can’t forgive them, they can forgive him. They don’t care what he has done, what he has said, what he believes or is likely to do. What they care about is that he will take them with him to Sacramento.

By Aug. 21, Mr. Limbaugh had begun to promote the actor’s candidacy, lauding “Arnold’s impassioned offensive against punishing the people of California with high taxes.” He even drew a comparison to the famous 1964 speech given by Ronald Reagan on behalf of Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich chirped up, too, describing Mr. Schwarzenegger as a man in the John Wayne–Ronald Reagan tradition of people you can believe in.

So what had been heresy at the beginning of August-comparing an immoral liberal actor to the patron saint of coastal conservatism-had become orthodoxy by the month’s end.

In hope of maintaining some small semblance of dignity, leading conservatives in Washington say they will require Mr. Schwarzenegger to sign a pledge that he won’t raise taxes. That gesture would serve as a fig leaf for politicians and pundits on the right, but it would hardly transform the candidate into a conservative. So what? Aside from a few dissenting preachers and an ambitious legislator or two, the Republican consensus is that Mr. Schwarzenegger is the only figure who can sway enough uncommitted voters to win-assuming that the recall passes.

That assumption may no longer be as certain as it once was, according to the most recent polls. Even more troubling for supporters of Mr. Schwarzenegger was the large margin that Cruz Bustamante, the Democratic lieutenant governor, enjoyed over their tainted hero in the most recent survey published by the Los Angeles Times on Aug. 24. How ironic it will be if, having sold out their philosophy and discarded their morality, the conservatives end up losing this election, too.