Is it all about Arnold?
There's nothing like giving a speech to the party faithful to get a politician's rhetorical juices flowing, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is nothing if not, er, a politician.
His Friday night speech to the state Republican convention was, at least in my view, the best red-meat political speech of his short political career. It was clear he is in full competitive mode (think of a bodybuilder in training for a competition) as he belittled Democrats in the Legislature as "addicts" and "poor little guys."
To raucus applause, he told delegates that "the train has left the station" and he will be going forward with a planned initiative battle in the fall to pass four ballot measures he will be pushing. Just as in the movies, he promised this will be a righteous battle between good and, well, he said, "We're going right there where all the evil is."
As good as it was as motivational fare, however, there were moments in the speech in which Schwarzenegger slipped troublingly close to making it sound as if the battle is not about issues or even about good and evil but rather simply about him. He opened with an extended series of jokes about the recent made-for-TV movie about him, for instance, and asked a little too plaintively for a show of hands to see how many had watched.
He said that those who are opposed to his initiatives have decided that the only way to win is, "Let's tear the governor down."
He continued: "Those poor little guys... The reality is they're not going to get my numbers down, and we're going to win!"
One pattern in Schwarzenegger's career has been his tendency to try to quash his critics. Indeed, one his first acts on the political stage in 2002 when he first began publicly toying with a run for governor was to threaten to sue Garry South, Gov. Gray Davis' political strategist, for circulating to political reporters copies of a magazine article that alleged Schwarzenegger had a history of sexual harassment on movie sets.
In office, he has shown signs of a thin skin, at various times responding to criticism by calling critics "girlie men" and "losers" and "stooges." When nurses protested at a speech last fall, the governor said they were only doing so because he was always "kicking their butts" in Sacramento.
His critics these days seem to sense that this is an area of vulnerability. In recent weeks they have staged guerilla political protests whenever Schwarzenegger appears in public (another is planned for tomorrow night's Sacramento premiere of a new Danny DeVito film). The strategy appears to be to try to goad the governor into saying or doing something outrageous in response. There is a sense that vanity may be this governor's weak spot.
The more Schwarzenegger strays from making the coming campaign about the issues and instead bases it on a cult of personality, the more he plays into that strategy.