Arnold Schwarzenegger may be the latest celebrity to transform himself into a candidate for high California office. But if some Republican political operatives have their way, he will not be the last.
The comedian Dennis Miller is being talked about -- apparently seriously -- as a Republican candidate for a statewide post. Three Republican strategists interviewed in the last week have said they want to draft Miller into politics. One, a prominent Republican operative and Schwarzenegger aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that, once the recall election is over, he plans to recruit Miller to challenge Barbara Boxer for her U.S. Senate seat next year.
The Schwarzenegger campaign even provided Miller with a political audition of sorts this week. The comedian -- famous for his raunchy and irreverent rants and his stint on “Saturday Night Live” more than a decade ago -- provided the campaign’s official post-debate spin in Sacramento on Wednesday night. Later the same evening, Miller spoke at a Schwarzenegger rally.
Miller, who is registered to vote as a Republican in Santa Barbara, betrayed no political ambitions in either appearance. While filming a guest appearance on the Fox show “Boston Public” this week, he declined to be interviewed for this story. But that has not kept Republicans from considering the possibility.
Some point to his history of doing serious political comedy and his willingness to branch out from his acting career. He did a recent two-year stint as an announcer on ABC’s “Monday Night Football,” though the experiment of comedian as sports commentator received a cool reception from viewers and critics.
“There’s a lot of us who’d like to see him campaign,” Rob Stutzman, a Republican consultant and Schwarzenegger spokesman, said this week, noting Miller’s appeal to younger voters. “Dennis Miller is at the cutting edge of biting political commentary.”
Another Republican consultant said simply, “We love him.”
That Miller is even being talked about as a candidate underscores the realities of contemporary California politics -- and how Schwarzenegger’s candidacy has already changed them. The movie star’s ability to make the transition in a matter of days from the screen -- in “Terminator 3" -- to the campaign trail has prompted other celebrities to publicly contemplate similar career changes. Actor Kelsey Grammer and tennis star Martina Navratilova are among those who have talked about political careers in recent weeks.
“You know all of the people on ‘Friends’ are going to be available. They are making $1 million an episode. Most everybody knows who they are,” says Martin Kaplan, director of USC’s Norman Lear Center, which studies the intersection of politics and entertainment. “All this drives home the idea -- I think a false one -- that you don’t need any particular skills or background to be a senator or a governor. All you need is ambition and fame.”
Miller had an Emmy Award-winning show on HBO for nine seasons -- “Dennis Miller Live.” He has appeared in several movies and has published four books, all of which have the word “rant” in the title. Kaplan says that while Miller has name recognition, he doesn’t have Schwarzenegger’s ability to “chill the enthusiasm of other Republicans from getting into the race.”
Democrats and other political experts say celebrities are attractive candidates because of the weakness of California Republicans. Not a single Republican holds statewide office, and the party lacks obvious candidates when high-profile seats come open. Republican consultants also want for well-funded clients, adding to the attractiveness of celebrity candidates.
It is that vacuum, political experts say, that made Republicans rally so quickly behind Schwarzenegger.
“We don’t have much of a bench in the Republican Party,” said Assemblyman Tony Strickland (R-Moorpark), who is himself running for Boxer’s seat. Strickland said a Miller candidacy wouldn’t be a surprise; he has noticed the comedian raising his political profile.
“We live in California. Actors have just as much right to run for office as lawyers and insurance agents,” Strickland said.
Roy Behr, a spokesman for Boxer, said Friday that “naturally, we would welcome him or anybody else into the race.” He said the serious discussion of such candidates demonstrated that Republicans lack adequate challengers.
“The Republican Party has gone through a desperate search to find someone who is remotely credible -- they’ve looked at everybody and everything, and they couldn’t find anybody, so they’re looking at bringing in the circus,” Behr said. “I think the public has always registered how they feel about Dennis Miller, and that’s why he got booted off ‘Monday Night Football.’ ”
Whatever his intentions, Miller has been raising his political profile for at least a year.
He spoke out passionately in favor of the war in Iraq. He has made frequent appearances on conservative talk radio; he does weekly political commentary for “Hannity & Colmes,” a Fox News Channel talk show. The show’s conservative host, Sean Hannity, has been a strong supporter of Schwarzenegger.
In June, Miller spoke at fund-raisers for President Bush in Los Angeles and San Francisco and endorsed the recall. “It’s no longer the San Andreas fault; it’s Gray Davis’ fault,” Miller said then, a line he repeated this week at the Schwarzenegger rally.
In his two appearances on behalf of Schwarzenegger this week, Miller cut a less than conventional political figure. Known for his literary and historical references, he entered the press room after Wednesday’s debate and immediately compared Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante to Sancho Panza in an extended allusion to “Don Quixote.”
And Miller declared of Schwarzenegger that “anyone who can negotiate back-end deals in Hollywood surely can resurrect this budget.”
At a post-debate rally at the Cal Expo center in Sacramento, Miller told a crowd of 1,000 mostly younger Schwarzenegger supporters, “I know Arnold acquitted himself admirably,” and offered a few political jokes.
“We’re now buying energy at mini-bar prices,” he declared at one point to wild applause and laughter.Then Miller turned serious, displaying a political philosophy friendly to any first-time candidate.
“When people ask me, do I think he should be the governor of the state of California, I say, of course he can,” Miller said. “Because at some point, that involves getting out of the way and letting this once-great state heal itself.”