The Law of the Playground

Watching Democratic legislators criticize Arnold Schwarzenegger for calling them “girlie men” is a bit like being back on a grade-school playground. That’s where little children discover for the first time that some people just don’t like them — and there’s really nothing they can do about it. As Democrats press their attack, this may turn out to be a pivotal moment in the political education of Arnold Schwarzenegger — and a cautionary tale for any other Republican public servant who believes that political conflict can somehow be transcended through the force of personality.

After a promising start, the Governor has run into the intractable political difficulties that face any Republican seeking to govern California. Negotiations with the Indians about their monopoly on casino gambling, which was supposed to yield a greater return to the rest of the state, have stalled. And Democrats, eager to force a Republican governor to raise taxes, have balked at passing the Governor’s budget, despite early projections that it would be completed on time.

Now, the Governor — understandably frustrated with the Democratic legislature — has gone over their heads to the people, calling his adversaries “girlie men,” an allusion to a popular “Saturday Night Live” skit that actually mocked him. And as inevitably as the sun rising in the East, the usual suspects have stepped forward to take offense, insisting the term is somehow sexist and homophobic.

It’s not. It’s just a funny catchphrase that two comedians used to ridicule anyone without a “pumped up” physique — which pretty much includes every elected official in America. But the outcry about it shows that the Democrats have resorted to their old ploy: if you can’t win on the facts of a policy public debate, it’s time to create a new one by being “offended” by some alleged act of “insensitivity.”

No one could blame the Governor for being surprised at the onslaught. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to be for him. Just months ago, stories emerged about the rapport he had built across the aisle, a particular contrast to the universal dislike for his predecessor, Gray Davis. For a while, it seemed as though good, old-fashioned collaboration had somehow descended on Sacramento; concord, not division, had suddenly become the order of the day.

But as with most illusions, the daydream of political unity has been dispelled by the harsh light of reality, and that, perhaps, isn’t such a bad thing. Republican politicians who enter the public arena late in life too often seem to cherish the conviction that partisan difficulties can be transcended easily through nothing more than a demonstration of good will on their side. Witness George W. Bush coming to Washington, D.C., determined to “change the tone,” as a “uniter, not a divider” — working with Teddy Kennedy on “No Child Left Behind” and consulting Tom Daschle on post-9/11 strategy.

Look where that got him. Republicans’ desire for comity with Democrats is understandable, but it is na???? ┬»ve. Because they represent the party of government, Democratic politicians will always take outraged umbrage when their political power is dwarfed by that of Republicans. And they will fight back with whatever weapons are in their arsenal, resorting at last to allegations of racism, sexism and homophobia.

In contrast, despite the heated dialogue of their ideological compatriots on talk radio, Republican politicians actually do make the occasional stab at bipartisanship, which in practice frequently means conceding to Democratic demands — if for no other reason than that it will guarantee them at least temporarily favorable press coverage. And more often than not, striving for a rapprochement becomes a mistake in both political and policy terms — as George W. Bush could likely attest today.

There is no reason that relationships between the members of different parties cannot be cordial. And political discourse should always be civil. But big disagreements arise from the fact that big issues — and big principles — are at stake. And so for Arnold Schwarzenegger and any other Republican leaders who are tempted to believe that partisanship is nothing more than just a big misunderstanding, it’s time for a wake-up call: Political differences are just the law of the playground.