It Won’t Be a Chance Encounter

Times Staff Writers

When President Bush shakes hands with California Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger on Thursday in Riverside, the event will be as scripted as if Bush were meeting a foreign head of state.

There will be attire to coordinate: Bush is usually buttoned-down and wearing a tie; Schwarzenegger tends to distain neckwear. There will be the setting to arrange -- one that doesn’t dwarf the president’s runner-trim frame to disadvantage against the bodybuilder governor-elect.

More important, for the last several days, both sides have been carefully negotiating what each can deliver politically.

Schwarzenegger has made clear that he wants Bush to help cover California’s budget deficit -- the issue that looks likely to decide the success or failure of his governorship. For his part, Bush wants Schwarzenegger to lead a resurgence of the Republican Party in California -- a movement that might just allow the president to win the state’s large number of electoral votes in his reelection bid next year.


Neither man can be sure the other will deliver.

One Bush official involved in planning the meeting said that the two intend to stick to general statements of support and avoid promises they may not be able to keep.

“Bush will come out and express his strong support for the governor-elect and pledge to work very closely with Schwarzenegger,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They’re not going to come out of their meeting and announce specifics.”

Schwarzenegger already has put the White House in a bind. In his first post-election news conference, the governor-elect made plain that he would look to Washington for more federal grant money -- something the administration, with a projected $500-billion federal deficit looming, has little leeway to provide.


There’s an imbalance between what California gives to the federal government by way of tax revenue and what it gets back in terms of aid, Schwarzenegger has pointed out. But Washington number-crunchers say that disparity is due largely to the fact that California’s population is younger than most other states, so it receives less in age-related benefits, including Social Security and Medicare.

However eager he may be to press for more federal aid in the meeting, Schwarzenegger would be smart to move deliberately, some consultants advised.

“The challenge is to keep the focus on the meeting itself,” said Arnold Steinberg, a Republican consultant. “I would certainly not want to put the president on the spot. So many people forget that unless you have an extraordinary situation -- such as an earthquake, where a president has emergency power -- when it comes to special types of federal aid or a change in [the federal funding] formula, these actions go slow and require congressional approval.”

Ken Khachigian, a former aide to President Reagan, agreed that the savviest approach would be for Schwarzenegger to stick to pleasantries and offer his help to Bush rather than ask for help from the White House.


It would be both premature and presumptuous for Schwarzenegger to roll out a list of requests at his first meeting with the president, he said.

“There is a protocol in dealing with the president,” said Khachigian, who worked as a presidential speech writer and campaign aide. “Were I giving him advice, I would say: Use this to create a good relationship. And the other thing I would say is: ‘Mr. President, how can I help you?’ ”

Khachigian described the meeting as “an overture, not the first act.”

Along those lines, one Schwarzenegger aide downplayed specific issues that might come up, describing the meeting as a chance for the two men to build an enduring relationship. “He looks forward to laying the foundation for a solid, positive working relationship with the president,” said H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the Schwarzenegger transition team.


Still, some California officials clearly are excited by the meeting.

“It’s the start of turning the economy around in California,” said Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, the incoming state Assembly GOP leader. “You’ve got to have a dialogue start with Washington.”

It’s a dialogue Bush also is eager to begin. The White House believes that the recall election has fundamentally shaken the political status quo in California -- so much so that Bush stands a chance of carrying the state in 2004.

After analyzing the voting patterns in the recall, “we became convinced that he could win here,” the Bush campaign official said. Citing the votes won by Schwarzenegger and state Sen. Tom McClintock, the other major Republican candidate in the recall race, he added: “That’s a heck of a majority.”


The central challenge, the official said, is to keep the usually fractious Republican Party together. And that’s where Schwarzenegger will come in.

“This recall changes the dynamics,” the official said. “Now we’ve got to capitalize on it for the president.”


Reynolds reported from Washington and Nicholas from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Edwin Chen in Washington also contributed to this report.