THE RETURN of California Republicans, from being shut out of statewide office to solidifying their hold on the governor's mansion, is one of the most remarkable political stories of the last decade. There would be no story at all, however, but for the singular persona of Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Austrian-born movie hero captured the state with glitz and flash but held it with moderate, pragmatic governance, carving a path for Republican leaders struggling to find relevance in a state that increasingly votes Democratic.
It is curious, then, that some Republicans in Sacramento appear so eager to shun that path. This year's crop of Assembly Republicans is more conservative, and has the potential to be more hidebound, than the last. Now members have ousted Minority Leader George Plescia, a San Diegan who helped broker the deal that put the successful infrastructure bond package on the ballot, and replaced him with Michael Villines of Clovis, an outspoken bond measure opponent.
Villines has been described as more confrontational and aggressive than Plescia, and less likely to sit quietly while the governor carries his initiatives directly to the Democratic majority in the Assembly and the Senate. But Villines' GOP colleagues also say their new leader is a realist who won't turn them into the Obstructionist Caucus.
Republicans do have the power to be obstructionist in Sacramento. With 32 of 80 Assembly seats, their caucus is too small to pass legislation without Democratic help but — because of California's requirement for a two-thirds vote to pass a budget — big enough to produce stalemates.
It would be a shame if they went that way, not just for the party but for the state. Schwarzenegger has put environmentalism back into the Republican agenda and has done so with an understanding of economics and business needs that Democrats often fail to demonstrate. He may be gearing up to do the same with healthcare. He can show California Republicans the same kind of pragmatic and progressive path into the future once blazed by such GOP leaders as Earl Warren and Goodwin Knight.
Schwarzenegger may find that he must now smooth relations with his own party or risk the same fallout that former Gov. Gray Davis suffered when he intoned that the job of legislative Democrats was to "implement my vision." In fact, a reality check from the right on spending and the deficit is welcome. But for Republicans, the path to relevance leads away from knee-jerk obstructionism and toward the moderate policies that Californians, with their support of the governor, have signaled they prefer.