Opinion

Has Arnold's 'post-partisanship' worked?

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Today's question: How successful or unsuccessful has Arnold Schwarzenegger's brand of "post-partisanship" been? Has Schwarzenegger been able to translate his popularity into effectiveness? Previously, Boyarsky and Bradley discussed the governor's budget veto, his promise to never raise taxes and whether California is better off after the 2003 recall election.

How past governors broke partisan gridlockPoint: Bill Boyarsky

When Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger took office, there was talk of him being above partisanship, crossing party lines and ending the stalemate that blighted the governorship of his predecessor, Gray Davis.

Such hopes for a post-partisan era ignored the reality of California politics -- or politics anywhere. Some of the country's founding fathers warned against political parties -- they called them factions -- but it turned out that the republic couldn't operate without them.

There's never been a California governor who has risen above partisanship. Instead, the most successful governors were able to manipulate partisan legislators and the powerful economic interests that influence lawmaking. That was how Earl Warren, perhaps the state's best governor, succeeded. In his excellent biography of Warren, "Justice For All: Earl Warren and the Nation He Made," author Jim Newton details how the governor operated.

Conservatives -- the ancestors of the Republicans who are blocking Schwarzenegger now -- and the California Medical Assn. had defeated Warren when he tried to enact a health insurance program. In 1946, Warren took on the conservatives and another special interest, the oil industry, when he proposed doubling the gas tax to build highways. In the Assembly, it came down to a single vote, and one lawmaker said he would support the governor if Warren would sign a bill close to the legislator's heart. It was a measure requiring pet food containing horse meat to be labeled "inspected" or "non-inspected."

Warren, seeing nothing wrong with the bill, agreed. "It was the only time I ever made a trade with a legislator for his vote," Warren said, "but it was an important one."

Some look back on that era as a great example of a nonpartisan government. In reality, Warren's government was nonpartisan only in the sense that the Legislature was run by lobbyists and their employers who cared not whether lawmakers were Republicans or Democrats but only about their votes for bills helping the oil, liquor, beer, gambling and other industries. The most famous lobbyist of the era, Artie Samish, boasted that while Warren may have been governor of California, he -- Samish -- was the governor of the Legislature.

Another successful governor, Pat Brown, made trades like mad with legislators to build the California Water Project, highways and university campuses. He rewarded cooperative Republicans with state judicial appointments. He knew how to deal with the representatives of business and labor. He worked with an Assembly speaker he disliked, Jesse Unruh, to pass great legislation.

Ronald Reagan, the two-time president of the Screen Actors Guild, knew how to negotiate, as did Pete Wilson, who could also be a tough guy.

Schwarzenegger must be judged on whether he has mastered the partisanship of the Capitol, not on his ability to bring a mythical sense of post-partisanship to the place. He hasn't done that. Granted, he faces obstacles greater than anything confronting Warren, Brown, Reagan or Wilson. The state is bigger and more complex. Term limits and lawmakers who are prisoners of their ideology present barriers to Schwarzenegger being an effective governor.

But Schwarzenegger's greatest predecessors figured it out. This current budget crisis, which may well be magnified by the crashing world economy, gives him a chance to prove himself.

Bill Boyarsky, a writer for Truthdig and LA Observed, is the author of "Big Daddy: Jesse Unruh and the Art of Power Politics." He was a political reporter, columnist and editor for The Times.

Post-partisanship: the antidote to California's hyper-partisanshipCounterpoint: Bill Bradley

What to make of Schwarzenegger's post-partisan mode of politics? And how effective is it? First, you have to define what it is and why it exists.

I agree with you, Bill, that a constructive partisanship is part and parcel of the American system of politics and governance. But partisanship has jumped the curb, morphing (to use a word made popular by "Terminator 2") into hyper-partisanship.

Hyper-partisanship infects state and national politics today. It's a corrosive political style that plays to the extremes of both parties. It's about "mobilizing the base," which is how Karl Rove's approach to reelecting President Bush can be summed up. It's about demonizing your opponents, a tactic that characterizes both the left and the right ends of the blogosphere, not to mention talk radio.

It's not really about finding solutions -- and it's not very popular.

Post-partisanship is the effort to move beyond hyper-partisanship, to engage with voters and deal with issues beyond the crouched ideological confines of gerrymandered districts, base mobilization strategies and the politics of personal destruction.

Here in California, the rise of hyper-partisanship has actually undermined the parties themselves. Independent voters, officially called "decline to state," are the fastest-growing bloc, while the Republicans and Democrats are seeing their shares of the electorate fall. When you include the American Independent Party (most of whose registrants -- which included Jennifer Siebel, new wife of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom -- unwittingly signed up not realizing it's actually a tiny right-wing party), independent voters are about 22% of the California electorate.

Schwarzenegger's smashingly successful reelection campaign -- in which he crushed a hyper-partisan Democrat by 17 points in a great year for Democrats across the country -- was largely geared toward independent voters. With most Republicans backing Schwarzenegger, notwithstanding the yapping about him from hyper-partisans of the far right, the post-partisan approach was the clear path to victory in the statewide election. It assured that Schwarzenegger would win most of the independents and a good slice of the Democrats.

It's no coincidence that 2006, a year in which Californians paid a lot of attention to state politics on account of the gubernatorial election, was also a year for notable post-partisan accomplishments: the biggest infrastructure investment program in California's history; the biggest solar energy program in the country; an increase in the minimum wage; Schwarzenegger's rescue of what is now the biggest stem cell research program in the world; and a landmark program to cut greenhouse gas emissions and fight climate change.

These accomplishments came about, in many respects, through Schwarzenegger's ability to work with Democratic legislative leaders Fabian Nuñez and Don Perata. Nuñez in particular was a fascinating player in this. Coming from the ranks of organized labor, you can't say he's not a real Democrat. While former Treasurer Phil Angelides, the Democrat Schwarzenegger defeated in 2006, had styled himself as "the anti-Arnold," reflexively opposing anything the former action superstar did or said, it was really then-Assembly Speaker Nuñez who deserved the moniker. He created far more trouble for Schwarzenegger than Angelides or anyone else.

But Nuñez kept trying to figure Schwarzenegger out, wondering if there might be a way to work together. The two finally met at length, secretly, in late summer 2005, looking for ways to avert the special election Schwarzenegger had called for his initiative reform package. Naturally, the hard partisans in both men's camps worked to keep the battle on. Although they couldn't quite find the deal to stop the 2005 special election, they had found a way to work together. And in 2007, their post-partisan approach came tantalizingly close to achieving a universal healthcare program for California.

The healthcare experience last year points to the shortcomings of post-partisanship, or perhaps of politics itself. Unlike infrastructure, which even some conservative Republicans could be convinced to support, healthcare is an extraordinarily complex issue with many moving parts that are hard to articulate. And on the state budget, with legislative Republicans dominated by their anti-government faction and legislative Democrats dominated by their ultra-government faction, it's even more difficult -- especially in a nonelection year for California's governorship, with the public not paying attention and the news media in a state of devolution.

Bill Bradley, a former senior advisor in presidential and gubernatorial campaigns, publishes NewWestNotes.com. He can be reached at williambradley@earthlink.net.

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