So Arnold Schwarzeneggar takes over as governor of California, capping an improbable victory that turned the political world upside-down.
It is useful, at this time, to examine how Schwarzenegger pulled off this feat. Thanks to Dick Morris’s book, Power Plays, we can identify the parallels between Schwarzenegger’s run and the presidential campaign of his California predecessor, Richard Nixon.
You see, Nixon began his presidential drive in the unpredictable political environment of the mid-1960’s, “a time when traditional precepts and presumptions seemed to be collapsing before the naked eye.” Sound familiar?
It was in that environment that voters, disgusted with President Johnson’s failure to end the war in Vietnam, were casting about for an alternative. Their savior was not to be found in the Vice President, the “hapless Hubert Humphrey,” who had adopted Lyndon Johnson’s policy of staying the course in Vietnam. Nor was he to be found in Alabama Governor George Wallace, the racist who became famous for opposing integration in the South, and who was mounting his own independent bid for the presidency.
Between these two extremes, Nixon propose a third way, staking out a middle ground on the issue of Vietnam by moderating his rhetoric and speaking in the vaguest generalities:
Determined to capture the middle, Nixon used his blank-slate presence as a Republican third way — more moderate than the Goldwater-Reagan wing of the party, but less liberal than Nelson Rockefeller.
Nixon fixed on the idea of “unity,” invoking it as a theme that let him avoid taking positions on the issues. He used the word the way a Freudian psychiatrist uses his deliberately blank face, permitting people to read into it whatever interpretation the patient needs emotionally.
Without seriously scrutinizing Nixon’s past, voters, disgusted by the president’s failure to end the war in Vietnam, pledged to vote for anyone but Johnson.
So what are the parallels? For one, Johnson defeated Goldwater in 1964 by reassuring the public over Vietnam and painting his opponent as an extremist. Similarly, Gov. Gray Davis won reelection in 2002 by playing down concerns over the deficit and portraying Bill Simon as unpalatably conservative.
In both cases, the incumbents faced a public backlash once the truth was revealed. Not only were things not okay, as they had been told, but the place was in deep shit indeed. Now, like then, Schwarzenegger’s big chance came at a time of great popular discontent.
In 2003, as with 1968, the Republicans were amenable to a candidate who could appeal to disaffected Democrats, but who was a good old boy when it came to the main issue at play. With Nixon, it was his staunch anti-communist record. With Schwarzenegger, it was his ties to big business and his pledge not to raise taxes.
And much like Nixon, who obscured his position on Vietnam by speaking only of an “honorable peace” and “disillusionment,” Schwarzenegger pursued a strategy of avoiding specifics in the election cycle. He skipped all but one debate, and even then he refused to state what he would do to erase the state’s deficit. And in victory, he too appealed for “unity” as both sides clamored for action.
Once in office, the public learned that Nixon’s “secret plan” was to get us out of Vietnam by pulling us further into the morass. The Schwarzenegger plan is finally taking shape, too: borrow billions of dollars, putting the state much deeper into debt, in order to gain breathing room before the hard work begins.
Of course, I wouldn’t venture that Schwarzenegger will follow in Nixon’s fate. But if history is any guide, Ah-nold will soon find out that making vague promises is much more difficult than fulfilling them.