A Retrospective on the “Governator” 

“I heard Humphrey saying things that sounded like socialism, which I had just left. But then I heard Nixon speak. He was talking about free enterprise, getting the government off your back, lowering the taxes, and strengthening the military.”

I said to my friend, I said, ‘What party is he?’ My friend said, ‘He’s a Republican.’ I said, ‘Then I am a Republican.’” 

-Arnold Schwazenneger, 2004 RNC

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s entry into American politics was an unexpected move for a movie star known for playing hulking characters such as Conan the Barbarian, and The Terminator. However, for 7 years he was the Governor of America’s largest state and once floated as a Presidential candidate (assuming some changes to the constitution). 

Schwarzenegger’s political career began with campaigning Proposition 49, an after-school funding initiative, which is still providing funding for schools today. He then went on to win the 2003 recall election, in which Governor Gray Davis was removed from office, partly due to his own lieutenant governor, Cruz Bustamante, running against him.

During his time in office, Schwarzenegger had some notable successes, such as his work on environmental issues and education reform. Despite the fond memories of bipartisanship, he also had some significant clashes with the Democratic-controlled legislature, particularly in his first term. He tried to override them through a series of special ballot measures, which ultimately failed after organized opposition from teacher unions.

At the 2004 RNC, he stated that his interest in politics can be traced back to watching the 1968 presidential debates as a newly assimilated American. He says he was struck by the difference in rhetoric between Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey and Republican nominee Richard Nixon. He says that, at that moment, he knew that he was a Republican because Nixon’s words resonated with him, an immigrant from a communist nation.  

In 2006 — despite Democrats being swept into power across the country in backlash to the unpopular Bush administration — Schwarzenegger won reelection in a landslide. He even won deep-blue counties like Santa Clara (where Joe Biden got over 70% in). In his second term, he showed a willingness to moderate and began collaborating with the legislature more. However, his popularity took a steep hit during the Great Recession, and he faced criticism for his handling of the state’s budget, which led to cuts in social services and education funding.

Though his political legacy is complex, Schwarzenegger is viewed favorably by many Today. In stark contrast to Trump’s GOP, Schwarzenegger represents a more moderate and sane Republican. He’s continued to promote democracy and personal fitness, two issues he was passionate about throughout his career. In the past few years, he’s posted viral videos fiercely denouncing the January 6th Insurrection and the Russian Invasion of Ukraine. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the immigrant movie star turned politician is truly a figure from American politics that could only exist a decade ago. Perhaps our state could use more leaders like him now.