Benedict Arnold

Arnold Schwarzenegger is in Washington today, and the difference between the two coasts, he'll find, is a good deal greater than that between fire and rain.

In California, the governor-elect is hailed as the Republicans' Great White (or, through the miracle of modern tanning, Orange) Hope. The first Republican gubernatorial candidate to proclaim himself pro-choice, anti-assault weapon and anti-homophobic, Schwarzenegger exhibited a crossover appeal that the GOP hadn't seen since Ronald Reagan invented the Reagan Democrats.

Schwarzenegger won the support of one-third of the union members who voted, nearly a third of the Latinos, a fifth of Democrats and liberals, and even 17 percent of those voters who disapproved of George W. Bush's performance as president. With what looks to be a close presidential election approaching, Schwarzenegger's brand of moderation would seem to have a lot to commend it.

Imagine his discombobulation, then, to find himself in the capital city, where his party is busy at work ensuring that the 2004 election turns on the question of banning gay marriage.

According to a report from The Washington Post's Mike Allen, Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie predicts that the party platform will proclaim that the sacrament of marriage is for straights only. But party strategists and right-wing activists aren't content to stop there.

"We're going to help it become a front-burner issue at the state and national level," Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, told Allen. House Republican staffers said that they were planning to draft a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage next year.

You can understand the Republicans' concern. With polls showing more than half the American public now doubting the president's capacity to handle both foreign and economic policy, the administration needs an issue to distract the disgruntled. More pointedly, as Karl Rove himself has noted, 4 million Christian evangelicals did not bestir themselves to vote in the election of 2000. At the rate things are going, Bush will need every one of those votes next year. Time, then, to unveil the real risk to our security. No, not al-Qaeda fanatics plotting the deaths of Americans at home or abroad. The administration's credibility on military and security matters generally may not be a whole lot higher than the Democrats' when the election rolls around.

Happily, Republicans have identified a threat right here at home on which the Democrats lack all backbone: marauding Unitarian ministers, cruising back alleys, threatening to swoop up same-sex couples and, before anyone can think better of it, marry them. Listen closely and you can almost hear the whispers: "Hey, big fellas -- wanna tie the knot?"

Who says the Republicans don't have an industrial policy? Against all odds, they continue to manufacture wedge issues. Imagine all those Democratic congressmen from culturally conservative districts who will flounder around trying to distance themselves from their all-too-tolerant party. Be it cultural traditionalism or strategic bigotry, the war on gay marriage -- that is, on human equality -- looms large in the GOP's electoral calculations for 2004.

Yet here -- bewilderingly and perhaps somewhat bewildered himself -- comes Schwarzenegger, a Republican whose cultural politics range from the libertarian to the libertine, who came of age on Venice's Muscle Beach, where gay sex was somewhere between normal and normative. And Schwarzenegger is no mere journeyman Republican, or even a Republican curiosity (though he is that), but arguably the second most prominent Republican in the land.

Schwarzenegger reached a tacit understanding with Republican right-wingers during his campaign: They would have to tolerate his laissez-faire attitude on cultural and sexual politics, in return for which he'd win them the governor's mansion and adhere to their laissez-faire positions on economics. All signs point to his keeping his end of the bargain: Ronald Reagan and Pete Wilson may have raised taxes shortly after they took office, but Schwarzenegger won't. Since the days when his predecessors governed, and with the waning of the Cold War, opposition to taxes has supplanted anticommunism as the linchpin of American conservatism, and that's a consensus that Arnold won't assail.

But that doesn't mean Schwarzenegger need stay silent when his party embarks on a campaign of stirring ancient hatreds. If Republicans really want to win the kind of voters Schwarzenegger attracted, they're way overdue for a Sister Souljah speech from a party leader with the guts to condemn his fellow party leaders for their manipulation of xenophobic, homophobic and racist fears. That speech would be no less powerful if delivered with an immigrant's accent.

Or Schwarzenegger could take a pass, and the Republican Party could stay its current course, alternating between Old Testament morality and new age sexuality in accord with the demographics of the district. Call it a big-tent party, or a boundless well of cynicism.

Harold Meyerson is the Prospect's editor-at-large.

This column originally appeared in Wednesday's Washington Post.

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