Political Hay

Arnold Agonistes

The Democratic-media conspiracy finds itself a villain.

By 4.25.05

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ANAHEIM -- Arnold Schwarzenegger has made some trippy movies, but they can't compare with the bizarre drama he's now starring in. Since being elected governor in the October 2003 recall of incompetent and irresponsible Gray Davis, Schwarzenegger has pursued a reform agenda that has even liberal policy wonks like Time's Joe Klein cooing.

Yet thanks to a California media that seem unable or unwilling to detail the extent of Democrats' dysfunction, Schwarzenegger isn't the hero of "The Battle to Save the Golden State." If you ask many of the state's most influential opinion-shapers, he's the villain.

This is beyond perverse, and the result could be California's ruin.

Schwarzenegger's post-Davis clean-up first required he end the state's practice of spending $1 billion a month more than it took in, the result of a reckless five-year spree by the Democratic Legislature and the compliant Davis, who acted as if the dotcom tax-revenue gravy train of the late 1990s was a permanent fact of life. The next priority was to shore up the state's business climate, which was stuck with a workers' compensation system that amounted to massive legally sanctioned fraud.

A year and a half later, the gap between revenue and spending persists, but it's smaller, and Schwarzenegger has stopped the Legislature's insane attempts to make things worse. Meanwhile, his workers' comp reforms -- grudgingly approved by lawmakers to avoid an initiative fight the governor would have won -- have helped the economy considerably and boosted state revenue.

But huge problems remain. Past initiatives have locked in spending hikes in programs that even a big economic boom wouldn't be able to pay for, the state's public schools have gotten incrementally worse for 40 years, and absurdly generous pensions and retirement health benefits for public employees make California seem more like a Western European "social democracy" than the Land of Reagan.

That something has gone haywire isn't much in dispute. Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez and Attorney General Bill Lockyer -- the state's most powerful Democrats -- have said California must make basic changes in its finances and beyond. Lockyer even admitted to voting for Schwarzenegger in the recall election.

But what have they and other Democratic leaders done besides talking about reform? Nothing. Schwarzenegger, conservative hero state Sen. Tom McClintock, and a handful of maverick centrists have put forward detailed plans on how California should get its fiscal house in order. Not just Schwarzenegger but think tanks and editorial boards have come forward with elaborate plans to fix schools and overhaul pensions.

Yet beyond cliches about working together to solve problems, Nunez, Lockyer and company have contributed exactly zero to the policy debate. Against this backdrop, it wasn't just a power play when Schwarzenegger announced in January that he was going to push for initiatives to cap state spending, institute merit pay for teachers, take redistricting power away from the Legislature, and shift future new state employees to 401(k)s instead of defined-benefit pensions; it was the only way he would ever get anything done.

WHAT WAS THE CALIFORNIA left's response to Arnold's audacity? Mendacity. For four months, the state's wealthy public employee unions have mounted a ferocious, multimillion-dollar, multilevel attack on "radical right-winger" Schwarzenegger. Teachers dishonestly claimed he was cutting the education budget. Cops dishonestly claimed he longed to wipe out the pensions of the widows of officers killed on the job. Nurses even dishonestly claimed his opposition to their agenda showed he was sexist. All his union critics said California's only problem was that its taxes weren't high enough.

Of course this criticism should have been reported by the media. But in a just, intellectually honest world, the media would also have noted such basic facts as that being for a balanced budget isn't normally seen as "radical." Or that over the last four full fiscal years, while state revenue has surged by 25 percent, spending has gone up 40 percent. Or that a February report by a government-watchdog agency showed that the state's school districts had $17 billion in unfunded liabilities for retiree health care and no way to cover the cost -- which means that California's struggle to pay for public employees' lavish benefits is, oh, about twice as bad as Schwarzenegger said.

Or, most obviously, that California's leading Democrats' refusal to offer any counterproposals of their own shows that they're all for this horrific status quo.

Instead, many reporters on the state government beat have bought the union talking point that Schwarzenegger's heavy fund-raising among corporate donors is the biggest story of the year, not the state's still-raging fiscal problems. Even more damaging, the governor is becoming a pinata for much of California's pundit class. Some big papers have stood by him, including the editorial pages of the San Diego Union-Tribune, the Los Angeles Daily News, and the Orange County Register (where I work). But for the most part, the norm has been a whiny "Can't we all get along" tack that faults the governor for his aggressive approach and ignores the implacability of his union foes and the inertia of state Democrats.

The Los Angeles Times' editorial page rapped Schwarzenegger's embrace of initiatives as "micromanaging by majority vote" and called on him to work with Democratic lawmakers to tackle the state's budget and education problems. So much for the utter absence of evidence that Democratic lawmakers would ever do anything to control spending and upset their union puppet masters.

The San Francisco Chronicle's editorial page said compromising with Democrats was the key to righting the state. So much for the fact you can't compromise when the other side doesn't offer a plan.

The Contra Costa Times' editorial page went from praising the reforms in January to calling them divisive in April and lamenting the $70 million cost if a special election were held on the initiatives this fall. So much for the fact that two of the governor's proposals would each prevent spending many billions of dollars the state doesn't have, dwarfing the $70 million the paper is so worried about.

The San Jose Mercury News' editorial page even parachuted in from some alternate reality to say the assertion that the Legislature would never consider reform on its own was "mostly a bum rap." So much for the assumption that all editorial writers are sentient.

However oblivious it may be, the carping has taken a toll. Between the pundits' potshots, the unions' vicious attacks, and some sloppy staff work that left flaws in his initiative petitions, Schwarzenegger's reform push has been staggered. He's given up on pension changes and merit pay for now, and while he says he's pushing ahead with his spending cap and redistricting proposals, no one would be all that surprised if none of his initiatives qualify this summer and force a fall election. The hope that was so common in January and February -- that 2005 would be the year California stepped back from the brink -- is fading, and fast.

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About the Author

Chris Reed is an editorial writer for the U-T San Diego newspaper, formerly the San Diego Union-Tribune.