Eminentoes

No-Show Schwarzenegger

Has bipartisanship terminated Arnold's ambitions?

By 9.3.08

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Arnold Schwarzenegger says because California's budget crisis remains unresolved, he'll be skipping the Republican National Convention in St. Paul. Bad move. With his poll numbers plummeting and his days in office dwindling, Schwarzenegger could use a friendly audience, even if he has to fly halfway across the country to get it.

Arnold's absence will also leave unanswered a question making the rounds in GOP circles: Just what exactly could he say? When it comes to dishing out Republican red meat, Arnold has put his political brethren on a strictly vegetarian diet.

How was the action hero who roared into office behind the recall of Gray Davis -- who pledged to blow up the boxes of bureaucratic state government and blasted Twisted Sister's "We're not gonna take it!" at campaign events -- confounded by a system he pledged to reform and rejected by Republicans who believed him their savior?

The answer lies in Arnold's first decision after his election, in which he instituted an almost symmetrical bipartisan government that repeatedly acceded to the Democrat powers that be in Sacramento. What followed was ultimately ruinous to his desire for change and catastrophic to his supposedly Republican base.

What does he have to show for his outreach? After nearly 1,800 days in office, Schwarzenegger and California find themselves right where they met: Drowning in red ink, dragging a massive and growing budget and dominated by the Democrats' gerrymandered majority.

Upon taking office in 2003, Schwarzenegger was urged to pressure nervous Democrats and demand reapportionment reform. He was also advised to lead a public preference for part-time politicians, compel the end of a full-time Legislature and rewrite a budget system that consigns California to an almost-permanent boom-and-bust economic cycle.

He didn't.

Instead, he proposed a complicated debt-restructuring arrangement, providing short-term relief at best, another layer of debt at worst.

Schwarzenegger's partner in this scheme was then-State Controller Steve Westly, a Silicon Valley Democrat who made a fortune off of EBay. The Arnold and Steve show barnstormed the state, both men shoulder-to-shoulder at campaign events.

Less than a year later, as Schwarzenegger geared up for re-election, the leading Democrat opposing him was -- you guessed it -- Steve Westly. Admirably, Arnold wasn't offended, but manifestly drew the wrong conclusions about Sacramento's hyper-partisan environment.

Although his recall election was opposed by every prominent Democrat, shortly after taking office, an order came down (from Maria Shriver, it is rumored) as the new governor staffed up: "appoint more Democrats."

While every governor appoints individuals from across the aisle, Arnold took it to an unprecedented level. His current chief of staff, secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency and head of the state's Air Resources Board are all Democrats who held even less prominent positions in the Gray Davis administration.

THIS IS NOT TO SAY Schwarzenegger failed to attempt big things. In 2005, he sponsored initiatives to achieve authentic budget reform, a fair reapportionment and an end to California's quick teacher tenure. But that campaign was destroyed by more than $100 million in television ads, courtesy of the state's teachers, trial lawyers and public employee unions.

In response, Schwarzenegger used his State of the State address shortly thereafter not to decry the nine-figure power play that snuffed out his pet causes. Instead, he took to the podium and apologized for supporting the ideas in the first place.

Changing tactics, Schwarzenegger next dangled the prospect of a political Fountain of Youth -- a rewriting of California's tough term limits law -- and tentatively reached a deal to combine it with an end to the guaranteed re-elections enjoyed by virtually every state official.

Democrats, however, sent to the ballot only a repeal of term limits and told Arnold what he could do with his reapportionment. Meekly, Schwarzenegger endorsed the idea.

Voters were not as agreeable and rejected the obvious power grab. Arnold has been in political free fall ever since.

Schwarzenegger is an obvious improvement on Gray Davis. But the recall that put him in office was not intended merely to replace a failed politician with a better one. It was a desperate attempt at lasting reform, which is only possible through a partisan political process in which consequential issues get debated, one side wins and one loses.

Still, Republicans cling to their own audacity of hope: The one-time Mr. Universe will understand that while he has sought to rise above the fray and appeal to a sense of statesmanship, this won't work in Sacramento, a town with nothing but contempt for honest brokers.

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About the Author

Jonathan Wilcox is adjunct professor at USC's Annenberg School for Communication and a former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. His email is: jwilcox@usc.edu.