Political Hay

California: Color It Purple

How a red and blue Arnold reinvented himself.

By 10.3.06

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Last year at this time he had been written off as politically dead by California's political and media pundits. This year, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has reinvented himself. Not only is he full of life, he also has made peace with the Democratically controlled legislature, thus, hemming in his gubernatorial opponent. He is on his way to a double-digit reelection victory on November 8.

Last October he was in the last phases of stumping for four pet measures in a special election he had called at a cost of millions to the state's unhealthy treasury. Voters in increasing numbers had been telling pollsters they were angry that Schwarzenegger had insisted on a special election when the measures could have been added to the June 2006 primary ballot at no cost.

All year Schwarzenegger had been suffering from a case of Tin Ear Disease and ignored the voters' complaints. During the course of the year he got a great deal of advice and accepted some of the worst of it. He stiffed the legislature, believing he could "take his case to the people" over the legislators' heads as he had done in his first year. Alas, his vaunted early approval ratings, above 60 percent, moved steadily downward into 20s by the day of the special election. All of his measures took a beating.

He apologized to the people. He apologized to the legislature. And, like Lazarus, he arose from the dead. He hired as his chief of staff a woman who had been executive director of the state Democratic Party. Republican leaders huffed and puffed -- at first. Some threatened to withhold support in a reelection campaign this year. Ultimately, they came around.

The light bulb over his head had gone on and was about to turn bright. Steve Schmidt, one of the savviest political communications specialists anywhere, helped him find the switch. He hired Schmidt away from Vice President Cheney's office to manage his campaign. Once they agreed upon the strategy and message, Schwarzenegger has not wavered from either.

With Schmidt's help, Schwarzenegger realized that Californians are politically hybrid. They have a strong impulse to do good works in the form of a clean environment, good education and health care. They also like to think of themselves as fiscally prudent, if not conservative. In practice, however, they often fall for "feel good" initiatives and referenda that add new loads to the state's bond indebtedness or mandate chunks of state revenue to particular activities, thus giving the legislature and Governor little discretion in budgeting.

This year, Schwarzenegger has recognized this ambivalence on the part of the electorate and acted accordingly. One day he's a Red stater; the next day he's Blue. Twice he vetoed bills to permit illegal immigrants to get drivers' licenses; however, he signed a "global warming" bill to mandate reductions in "greenhouse gas" emissions. Reds were happy that he vetoed a bill to make the state the sole payer of health care for the populace. They applauded when he signed a bill to end the "dance of the lemons," the practice of shifting unsuccessful teachers from one failing school to another. They breathed a sigh of relief last week when he vetoed a bill to give California's presidential electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. The Blues, on the other hand, were delighted that he signed their minimum wage bill and one to allow same-sex couples to file joint state income tax returns.

His opponent, state Treasurer Phil Angelides, has had difficulty getting traction (and money) from his own base. Despite a party advantage of 1.3 million in voter registration, only 6l percent of Democrats say they support him. In desperation he announced last week that if he were elected he would do everything possible to bring California National Guard members home from Iraq. This was a misbegotten effort to tie Schwarzenegger to George Bush, whose approval ratings in the Golden State are very low. It was misbegotten because the guilt-by-association strategy rarely works in elections and especially in this one, in which Schwarzenegger has conspicuously kept Bush at arm's length.

Schwarzenegger is running circles around Angelides. Within the last few days the state's three leading polling organizations, the Public Policy Institute of California, the Los Angeles Times and the Field Poll (whose sampling may tilt slightly toward Democrats) have pegged his lead at 17, 17 and 10 percent, respectively.

When you mix red and blue you get purple. That is what California is and that is the way the Governator has been playing it.

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About the Author
Peter Hannaford was closely associated with the late President Reagan for a number of years. He is a member of the board of the Committee on the Present Danger. His latest book is “Presidential Retreats.”