SAN FRANCISCO—Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Republican governor of California, acknowledged this week that he would like to run for president if the Constitution allowed it, offering a rare glimpse into the mind of a political celebrity whose tenure is coming to an end.
"Yeah, absolutely," Schwarzenegger said on 60 Minutes after being asked if he wished he could seek the nation's highest office. "I think that I am always a person that looks for the next big goal. And I love challenges. I always set goals that are so high, that are almost impossible to achieve. Because then, you're always hungry for climbing and climbing. Because it's always interesting. The climb is always interesting. When you get there, you just have to pick another goal."
The Austrian-born former actor, whose second term as governor will end next year, is barred from running for higher office by a constitutional provision that requires the president to be a natural-born citizen. It would take a constitutional amendment to pave the way for him to vie for the White House, something most political experts consider unlikely.
Which leaves Schwarzenegger, 61, facing a difficult question: What next? After last month's election, the movie star turned politician was considered a potential candidate for President-elect Barack Obama's cabinet, possibly as energy secretary. But now that Obama's cabinet choices are made—with Steven Chu, the Nobel Prize-winning director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, getting the energy nod, instead—Schwarzenegger's political future appears increasingly uncertain.
No one doubts that the former bodybuilder and no-holds-barred straight talker, who famously called state legislators "girlie men" during a round of budget negotiations, has created a unique niche for himself in the Republican Party. After leaping from Hollywood to the governor's office in a hotly contested recall election in 2003, Schwarzenegger has emerged remarkably intact from a series of early, high-profile stumbles. Two years after he took office, voters rejected much of his reformist agenda, turning down his proposals to curb state spending and redraw the state's political map.
Still, the governor seemed to learn his lesson from the experience, and since winning re-election, he has largely reinvented himself as a wholly original blend of global warming advocate, social liberal, and fiscal conservative—a political template, many experts say, that other Republicans would do well to follow.
In the past few years, Schwarzenegger has steered clear of both major controversy and political orthodoxy. He sued the Bush administration's Environmental Protection Agency over its refusal to allow California to impose cuts in greenhouse emissions and stared down the Big Three automakers when they refused to make their cars more fuel efficient. In 2006, he signed landmark legislation that required California, in the absence of any federal global warming regulation, to lower its carbon emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020—a 25 percent reduction.
Schwarzenegger has shown his political independence on everything from the culture wars to balancing the budget. He has not only openly supported same-sex marriage; he has also displayed a willingness to shed some of the GOP's antitax ideology, offering to meet Democrats in the state legislature halfway to solve California's perennial budget problems.
Which isn't to say the Governator has gone soft: Last week, Schwarzenegger vetoed a Democratic plan to raise $9.3 billion in new taxes to help close a looming $40 billion budget gap, saying the lawmakers' budget package did not contain sufficient cuts.
Five years of political warfare have certainly taken their toll on Schwarzenegger—as he has battled the state's labor unions and recurrent, multibillion-dollar budget problems, his approval rating has slipped from 60 percent two years ago to 40 percent this fall—but the governor is still widely admired for his work on global warming, in particular. Some political observers believe he could parlay his environmental reputation into an Al Gore-like role as a roving champion of green technology and climate-conscious energy policy.
There may also be more politics in his future. During the Republican primaries, there were murmurings of a blockbuster political partnership between Schwarzenegger and Michael Bloomberg, the equally independent mayor of New York. But with Bloomberg aiming for another term as mayor, Schwarzenegger's more likely road to Washington is through the Senate.
It's difficult to picture the governor in an organization where he would have anything less than a starring role, but California's two senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, are both liberal Democrats, and political experts say Boxer, in particular, could be vulnerable to a challenge. Boxer has already begun raising money for a re-election campaign in 2010—the same year, political experts have noted, that Schwarzenegger's term runs out.
Schwarzenegger, for his part, has refused to look too far ahead, saying his role as governor is his top priority, trumping any commitment to the Republican Party or its goals of winning back a Senate seat. "For me, the most important thing is, when I make a decision, is what is best for the people of California, and what is best for our economy, and what's best for the state, not what is best for my party," he said on 60 Minutes. "I'm not a party servant. I'm a public servant."
It's entirely possible, Schwarzenegger likes to joke, that after his years in the political spotlight, he may not even be the best person to ask about what's next for him. He said in an interview in November that his wife, Maria Shriver, would probably have something to say about his future, as well. "Before I make any move, the next move that I make, I'm going to go and say to Maria: 'Maria, you tell me what to do.' "
Time will tell, perhaps, if Shriver's—and Schwarzenegger's—tastes run more toward Capitol Hill, Terminator 4, or something else entirely.