The Critical Arnold Frame: What does the one big Republican success story truly mean?

There is one Republican who is poised to do exceedingly well on Tuesday – California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. We’ll see what plays out, but if it goes as expected, Arnold will win big over the Democrat.

It is very important to be clear on what this means. From my perspective, it’s because Arnold represents a creature we have not seen in a long time – a progressive Republican.

He started out as a mushy moderate in the 2003 Recall Election that started him out. He then tacked hard to the right and championed a conservative agenda in the 2005 special election for initiatives – where he got clobbered. But in the last year he has now tacked to the other side and become a champion for a range of progressive policies that originated with the progressive Democrats that run the state legislature.

The success of this formula, particularly in the context of a repudiation of conservative Republican politicians and policies, will have a big impact on the next wave of Republicanism to evolve in the coming years.

The San Francisco Chronicle had a front page story this morning that comes closest to articulating this framework, though reporter Carla Marinucci still dances around the edges. Here’s how she leads off the story:

If the Republican Party, as predicted, takes a serious swamping Tuesday across the country, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger may look not only like a prescient politician who rode the wave -- but like one who's now poised to generate one himself.

Even before Tuesday's vote is tallied, "Arnold has become the New Republican -- someone who talks fiscal conservatism and put together a coalition of Democrats and Republicans," said GOP strategist Ed Rollins. "Certainly, he can become a very significant role model."

Should he win re-election -- and polls put him in a commanding lead -- Schwarzenegger's bounce back from unpopularity a year ago will show how California "has always been a trendsetter,'' Rollins said. Politically, "it's always two to six years ahead of the rest of the country.''

Rollins gets the new wave part, but muddles the mix of what Arnold represents. Marinucci then gets everyone else’s take on what Arnold means and the story goes into a “he said, she said” balanced piece that can tie newspaper stories up in knots.

But the general thrust of the piece is pointing to Arnold as a sign of new wave Republicans. And that much is true.

However, the piece begs the question about where the really interesting story now lies. Not in Republicans who are desperately taking Democrats’ progressive ideas to appeal to the electorate, but on the front edge of that progressive movement.

The real story of the next couple years is going to be how progressives drive the new agenda that needs to fill the gaping void the conservatives are leaving. As the Chronicle story puts it in the end with a quote from Democratic strategist Chris Lehane:

The political question isn't "does Arnold provide a road map to the future,'' Lehane said, but now that Schwarzenegger has "tacked to the left and taken many of their ideas, are Democrats going to create a new vision for the party and seize the opportunity?''

Indeed, that is the question now.

Peter Leyden