Gov. attuned to waning of party loyalty

Times Staff Writer

Rolling out his agenda last week, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proudly elevated his eclectic approach to a kind of political doctrine: Republicans and Democrats might be invested in the fight for supremacy, but voters aren't.

Seeing that party loyalties are dwindling, Schwarzenegger is confident that he faces no real repercussions if he disappoints the state's GOP leadership.

Siphoning ideas from both major parties, he remains a Republican by registration, but he is acting, speaking and governing increasingly like an independent. Like a party of one.

In the first week of his new term, Schwarzenegger's moves were nearly impossible to categorize. He was left, right and center all at once, a method he cast as "post-partisan."

He called for scaling back state welfare benefits but also proposed new assessments on business to underwrite his ambitious healthcare plan. The governor wants more money to combat global warming, but also to build new prisons and reservoirs -- projects important to Republicans.

"There's something positive for everyone, and there appears to be something negative for everyone," said Lewis Uhler, president of the nonprofit National Tax Limitation Committee.

Schwarzenegger's approach reflects a careful reading of the California electorate. Since 1990, Republican and Democratic party membership in California has dropped, while the proportion of independent voters has climbed.

Independents account for nearly 19% of the electorate today, compared with 9% in 1990. In his Jan. 5 inaugural speech, the governor said that if these trends continue, independents will outnumber each of the major parties in 20 years.

Across a broader swath of the country, analysts have spotted the same pattern.

From 1994 to 2006, Democratic Party registration dropped from 48% to 42%; Republican, from 34% to 33%, according to data compiled in 27 states by Rhodes Cook, author of a northern Virginia-based political newsletter. Independents and those registered to other parties rose from 18% to 25% during those years.

There are no data available for all 50 states.

Schwarzenegger is positioning himself ahead of that onrushing wave, political analysts said.

"He's looking at where the voters are going," said Tony Quinn, co-editor of the California Target Book, which analyzes state races. "He's where the curve is."

Republican Party leaders say they are alarmed. State Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks), an icon for California fiscal conservatives, said the governor's healthcare proposal involves an unacceptable tax on business.

Schwarzenegger "shattered" a campaign promise that was vital to his reelection, McClintock said.

Does it matter what conservative activists think? Political analysts say no.

Schwarzenegger, after all, captured 91% of the GOP vote when he won reelection. The only statewide offices that Republicans won in the November election were those of governor and insurance commissioner. Even with an incumbent candidate, the GOP lost the secretary of state post.

For the moment, the party's best and perhaps only asset in California is Schwarzenegger.

"The problem with the McClintock wing is that they're in great danger of making the Republicans completely irrelevant to the process," Quinn said. " ... They lost. They went to the voters with their ideas, and they weren't the ones who got elected."

One advisor to the governor privately said that Schwarzenegger's new identity is not so much post-partisan as "post-Republican."

With his first term behind him, Schwarzenegger has decided that aligning himself with Republican lawmakers is futile. He tried that in 2005, when he called a special election with conservative goals such as curbing state spending and restricting labor's political clout.

Voters defeated the governor's program, and his approval rating sank to the 30s.

Ever pragmatic, Schwarzenegger saw that pushing a classic Republican agenda was a dead end and that if he was to avoid failure -- a Schwarzenegger imperative -- he had to adapt.

Those who know him say there's a degree of self-interested calculation in the post-partisan stew.

"The governor may remain a Republican by name, but from a political standpoint he doesn't see a lot to be gained in terms of promoting his party membership," said Mark Baldassare, a pollster with the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.

Determined to reach the biggest audience possible, Schwarzenegger may be planning to take his message on the road. Aides have said he may travel to New Hampshire and Iowa during the presidential primary season, hoping to become part of the national conversation.

"What he has had to say in the last week has put him back on the national stage, talking about healthcare reform and global warming and post-partisanship," Baldassare said.

"So while he can't run for president, he can certainly position himself as a national political leader by talking about the value of thinking beyond partisanship."

peter.nicholas@latimes.com

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