Arnold Schwarzenegger, hot off a seven-year run as California governor, went underground in May after it was revealed he had fathered a child with a household employee.
The White House, which worked with him on events like Solyndra’s factory groundbreaking in 2009, cut off contact. A “world tour” to promote green policies was derailed. Polls showed that most of the support he had left among his former constituents was gone.
But in recent weeks, Schwarzenegger has begun to return to the spotlight, making public appearances at renewable energy and climate change events, advocating for green technology and touting his energy achievements in the Golden State.
“I promise you I will be your cheerleader and carry our message around the world. I will do everything in my power to make this happen,” Schwarzenegger told the American Council On Renewable Energy on Dec. 5 in Washington, D.C. “I feel as passionate about this as I did about bodybuilding, about fitness and weight training, all those things.”
Having spent six months out of the spotlight, Schwarzenegger is easing back into public life.
Besides his energy-related activities, Schwarzenegger is penning a memoir and starring in a sequel to the 2010 action flick “The Expendables,” as well as a Western.
Whether his shift back into the world of policy will ingratiate him again with the public is unclear.
Schwarzenegger — the star of Hollywood hits such as “The Terminator” and “Total Recall” — is both enigmatic and appealing, strategists say.
“The normal rules that you would apply to a politician just really have never applied to him because he’s an iconic figure beginning with sports and then entertainment and then politics,” said Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist who worked in the White House counsel’s office during President Bill Clinton’s Monica Lewinsky scandal.
“He’s just never been perceived — even as governor — as a politician. He was his own separate brand that transcended politics, that transcended entertainment, that was a very unique brand,” Lehane added.
Schwarzenegger was well-known in politics, inside and outside of California, for his energy and environmental efforts, including: passing a cap on greenhouse gas emissions, fostering the solar industry and mandating that utilities have energy storage capacity for when the wind doesn’t blow.
He even converted two of his Hummers to run on biofuel and hydrogen.
But any post-gubernatorial plans were postponed when news broke in May that he had fathered a child with an employee and kept it secret for more than a decade. Schwarzenegger’s wife, Maria Shriver, left him and has filed for divorce.
A June poll found that three-quarters of California voters said they viewed their former governor unfavorably, while 20 percent expressed support.
Now, by working to reconnect himself with renewable energy, Schwarzenegger is seeking to remind the public of his greatest policy-related achievements.
“He deserves serious policy credit because he has been involved in those issues. He did roll up his sleeves and accomplish — with the help of a lot of Democrats — but accomplish some particularly significant policy wins in California,” Lehane said.
It also shifts the conversation away from the scandal, according to Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.
“Scandals don’t usually go away because of the calendar. They go away because you changed the subject,” Schnur said. “So by reminding people how active he has been in the climate change debates, Schwarzenegger is making it easier for them to get past his personal matters.”
It’s true, Lehane says, just look at golfer Tiger Woods.
“You saw the degradation of one of the greatest brands in history as the result of poorly handling an issue — and Arnold has, at least in terms of the crisis response, did not make the fundamental mistakes that Tiger did,” he said. “But nonetheless Tiger is now beginning to secure back major corporate endorsements.”
Before the scandal, Schwarzenegger’s name was occasionally mentioned for a post in President Barack Obama’s administration — including by Schwarzenegger himself.
Perhaps his biggest selling point: he’s a card-carrying Republican.
“To me, it made no difference if a Democrat had a great idea or a Republican had a great idea, or if someone from the outside had a great idea, or if someone from within the office had a great idea,” Schwarzenegger said on Dec. 15 at a conference on climate change organized by current California Gov. Jerry Brown, the Sacramento Bee reported. “The more inclusive you are about this, and the less you villainize anybody, the better you’re off.”
“Even though Schwarzenegger is no longer a sitting governor, he does add a level of bipartisanship to the discussions on these issues,” Schnur said.
Schwarzenegger spokesman Adam Mendelsohn said the former governor is definitely ready to re-emerge.
“Early in the year, he put most of his projects on hold to focus on his family and then later on in the year he started taking on a few projects and giving a few more speeches,” Mendelsohn said.
“If the Obama administration is pushing for something that makes sense and he agrees with, then he’s not opposed to working with them,” Mendelsohn said. “Gov. Schwarzenegger does not believe in partisanship for the sake of partisanship.”
Some, like GOP energy strategist Mike McKenna, think Schwarzenegger is subtly flashing his credentials.
“He is angling for some sort of — I don’t know if it’s a job or some sort of position in the event Obama wins. I’m not saying he’s running for administrator of the EPA, but I could see him wanting to be something,” McKenna said. “As they cast about for a Republican to try to calm the waters, I could see where a guy like Schwarzenegger would fit into those plans.”
Anything’s possible, according to Lehane.
“You project out four years, six years, eight years, I think you can never write any of this stuff off,” he said. “Now I think for Arnold being Energy secretary, after being a Republican governor, in a Democratic administration would have continued his brand, of being a transcendent brand, of being above political party.”
“It’s not inconceivable that a future president or a second-term Obama or others, once there is some distance put between this and everything else he’s doing, to be comfortable,” Lehane added.
It remains to be seen whether Schwarzenegger will be successful in leaving his scandal behind.
Some politicians — think Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich — have successfully rebuilt their image over time.
And others — like former Rep. Anthony Weiner — have been driven out of office.
But Schwarzenegger is unpredictable, and ultimately the question comes down to whether he can reclaim his entertainer-cum-statesman title of “Governator.”
“I have learned over the years that you can’t necessarily ascribe the same strategic approach that a typical politician would take,” Lehane said. “Arnold has always been in a category unto himself, basically.”
Read this article on POLITICO.