California's New Best Friend

California's Gov.-Elect Arnold Schwarzenegger, right, gets a pat on the back from President Bush as the actor-turned-politician introduces Bush to speak on the economic recovery and the war on terror, in San Bernadino, Calif., Thursday, Oct. 17, 2003.
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This commentary from The Weekly Standard was written by Bill Whalen.

California may or may not factor into President Bush's reelection strategy, but at least the White House knows the local history. The President and Governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger met yesterday at Riverside's Mission Inn, which has hosted GOP presidents as far back as William McKinley. A century ago, Teddy Roosevelt re-planted a navel orange tree on the hotel's grounds. It's also where Richard and Pat Nixon were married, and Ronald and Nancy Reagan honeymooned.

Maybe that's why partnering was the dominant theme of yesterday's tête-à-tête. Schwarzenegger said he wanted to "create a great relationship with the White House." Bush joked that in addition to marrying well and mangling words, he and the Governator-elect had something else in common -- "big biceps." After a comic pause, the president kidded that "two out of three ain't bad."

There was an irony to yesterday's meeting. Bush and Schwarzenegger are the biggest stars in the Republican galaxy -- numbers 1 and 1-A as event draws -- yet they aren't particularly close. Arnold has probably talked more to Karl Rove than to Bush since November 2000. Still, they share common ground. Each adores the elder George Bush (in the previous Bush administration, Arnold chaired the President's Council on Physical Fitness; Bush 41 called Arnold on the night of his recall victory). Schwarzenegger and Bush 43 are both boot-wearin', country-music-lovin' guys. You could flip a coin to decide which is the bigger fitness fanatic.

Perhaps they talked about the merits of cardio versus weights during their closed-door meeting yesterday. But odds are most of the 45 minutes was devoted to laying the groundwork for a new working relationship between Sacramento and Washington. What form that will take is a favorite guessing game in California. Will the Bush administration suddenly shower the new Republican governor with riches? Will Arnold have to stand in line with the other 40 governors currently staring at budget deficits? Or is there a third way for the White House to bond with California, by crafting initiatives that are long on symbolism but short on cash.

The smart money says the White House goes that third route -- simply because it won't part with the kind of money Arnold wants. During the recall campaign, Schwarzenegger bemoaned the unfairness of California's status as a "donor" state. The Golden State gets back about 76 cents in federal money for every tax dollar it sends to Washington -- only five states have a more unfavorable ratio (the last time California received more than it paid was 1984, courtesy of the Reagan defense buildup). That's a $50 billion annual imbalance. But unfortunately for Arnold, that idea doesn't hold up in the court of political reality. Facing a $500 billion federal deficit, Washington's in no mood -- and no position -- to shovel money to the states. Even in flush times during the 1990s, the feds turned a deaf ear on California when it came to illegal immigration reimbursements (the driving cause behind Proposition 187). Arnold would also have to explain why he deserves favorable treatment within his own party: Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Nevada each rank worse than California and have Republican governors.

So what's a governator to do if Washington isn't willing to open the money spigot? Some suggestions:

(1) Fight Base-Closing. The next round of defense cuts, to be decided in 2004, will be painful for California. Potential losses include of Sacramento's Beale Air Force Base, the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station in the Mojave Desert, and Navy and Marine facilities in San Diego. Arnold can talk fairness since California's suffered the worst during this process of elimination. Of the 97 bases closed between 1988 and 1995, more than 20 facilities were in California. He can also talk jobs and the economy (more than 165,000 personnel work on California's military bases). And he can do what former Republican Governor Pete Wilson did a year ago: ask for public hearings statewide, gin up local support, and turn up the heat on Washington. If President Bush is campaigning next year on national security, sparing a base is the sort of good news he'll want to deliver in person.

(2) Put the "Green" in Greenback. Schwarzenegger will soon discover that in order to get money from Washington, the guarantee of good photo-ops for the Bush administration is a strong enticement. In California, the best place for pretty pictures is environmental policy. During recall, Schwarzenegger pitched three environmental ideas that require federal largesse: hydrogen fuel development; improvements for protecting Lake Tahoe; and the federal purchase of offshore oil leases. The Bush administration has already done the latter in Florida, helping the president's brother. All three will get the Bush White House good coverage in green-obsessed coastal California where the president's popularity is soft.

(3) Unleash the President's Cabinet. Yesterday, while Schwarzenegger and Bush met in Riverside, Interior secretary Gale Norton was at Nevada's Hoover Dam, signing a deal to transfer billions of gallons of water from California desert farms to coastal cities. That's big news in a state whose water war is seemingly endless. With a friendly regime in Sacramento, the president's surrogates can work the state's media markets, announcing grants and waivers to California's benefit. This is a page from the Clinton playbook. Not a week went by during the Clinton-Gore years without at least one appointee making news in the Golden State. Bonus: Three Bush cabinet secretaries -- Ann Veneman, Norm Mineta and Anthony Principi -- are California natives.

(4) Arnold as the Man of the House. Swing a dead cat in the House of Representatives and you'll strike a California Republican in a position of influence. Five California GOP congressmen chair House committees. That includes Ways & Means, Armed Services, and Resources. Another five chair subcommittees. This gives Arnold flexibility when it comes to scrounging for money (Rep. Jerry Lewis, for example, chairs the National Security Appropriations subcommittee) or rewriting regulations (Rep. Bill Thomas chairs the House Ways & Means Committee, the ultimate soup-to-nuts operation). The former muscleman also has political power in the form of Rep. David Dreier, his leading campaign surrogate and the chairman of the House Rules Committee, which controls floor votes. Schwarzenegger will find the 20 California Republicans in the House responsive to his needs -- and far more pleasant to deal with than Barbara Boxer, who, even on a good day, makes Arianna Huffington seem like Mother Theresa.

(5) Bait the "Fishhook." The president's visit to Riverside was no accident. California's Inland Empire is part of a Republican "fishhook" strategy for carrying California in 2004 (Schwarzenegger appeared in that neck of the woods three times during the last five days of recall). Starting north in Sacramento, GOP support moves south through the Central Valley toward the Inland Empire, then west through Orange County toward San Diego -- a fishhook shape on a map. California Republicans need to convince the Bush White House that repeat visits are a worthy investment of his time and, hopefully, his money. The Bush reelect team likes the idea of having California in play -- especially the notion of Democrats diverting millions of dollars from other states to secure their California base, which Al Gore didn't have to do in 2000. With Arnold by his side, the president just might have fun. Schwarzenegger is scheduled to take his oath on or about November 17. Keep an eye on who represents the White House at the changing of the guard. Is it Bush moneyman Gerry Parsky, or a more prominent emissary from back east -- perhaps the vice president? Now that they're fast friends, let's see how fast the president comes to the aid of his new pal.

Bill Whalen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he follows California and national politics.

By Bill Whalen