Governing California isn't the end for Schwarzenegger
Point: Bill Bradley
What will be Arnold Schwarzenegger's legacy as governor of California? What lies in his future? Will he have political heirs? These are rather futuristic questions, as Schwarzenegger has another 27-plus months as governor. But the gubernatorial election cycle will commence right after the presidential contest, and Schwarzenegger, thanks to term limits, can't seek a third landslide victory. And since he became a global icon as the star of sci-fi action films, a bit of futurism it is.
As he brandished a broom before a roaring crowd of 10,000 outside the state Capitol in Sacramento the weekend before the 2003 recall election with his rock anthem "We're Not Gonna Take It" roaring behind him, Schwarzenegger vowed to sweep aside the old political ways. He was elected as a reformer, with the mission of straightening out state government and getting California moving again.
But of course, the image of him striding off the silver screen, smiting the bad guys and freeing Mars -- er, California -- was not actually to be. For one thing, it's tough to be a reformer when you're smashing all fundraising records, even if much of the money is going to fund your version of reform. For another, politics isn't exactly like the movies, needless to say.
Schwarzenegger did get California moving again, as his predecessor and former rival Gray Davis was one of the first to acknowledge. Now things are at a low ebb, with the Golden State battered by its own business cycle and chronic budget crisis in addition to what is clearly an epic global financial crisis.
Schwarzenegger, who has been at times arguably the most popular governor in California's history, is at one of his lower ebbs. But he's proved to be resilient, the public likes him, and he's been relentless in each of his careers. In conversations with me, both Davis and former Gov. Jerry Brown, now the state's attorney general, have marveled at Schwarzenegger's audaciousness and determination to think big.
He's already had major accomplishments. In 2004, Schwarzenegger stabilized the state's finances by winning voter approval of the multibillion-dollar deficit bonds Davis and the Legislature put together to keep state government running, making the package constitutional and averting a legal challenge that could easily have shattered the state's finances. He then passed a major workers compensation reform package which, while decidedly imperfect for workers, helped many businesses.
Other accomplishments by Schwarzenegger, frequently working in post-partisan fashion with legislative partners, include the biggest infrastructure investment program in California's history; the biggest solar energy program in the country; an increase in the minimum wage; his 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, which both Barack Obama and John McCain have vowed to approve as president.
Schwarzenegger fell short last year on universal healthcare, but I expect more moves on that front as well as on the environment and other issues.
Schwarzenegger has not solved California's chronic budget crisis, fed in part by his first act as governor: the extraordinarily popular decision to cut the car tax. While he has pushed unsuccessfully for various budget reforms and revenue sources, he has been whipsawed by the anti-government and ultra-government factions and the nearly unique two-thirds vote requirement to pass a budget, all of which cause fiscal entropy in the Capitol.
He's just won a budget stare-down with legislative leaders, who were slow to realize that they didn't have the votes to overturn his promised veto of the budget package. But the concessions he won will not solve the chronic problems.
So Schwarzenegger gets another crack next year. Hopefully everyone can think outside their little boxes. Conservative icon Ronald Reagan pushed for a big tax hike. Liberal icon Brown pushed for the Gann spending limit. The most conservative governor of my lifetime, George Deukmejian, shredded that limit. The crisis will be solved only when people get beyond stereotypical thinking.
What's next for Schwarzenegger? Both Obama and McCain say they might want him in the Cabinet. McCain owes him, after Schwarzenegger helped the GOP presidential candidate clinch the nomination in the California primary. He could run for the Senate. He can do a global foundation and serve in international posts. He can make movies.
Who are Schwarzenegger's heirs? He may be a one-off. I doubt many movie stars are thinking, "Gee, that looks easy." The Republicans in this state are becoming more insular. It will be very tough for any Republican not born in Austria to win in 2010.
One thing is certain: The Schwarzenegger story will continue.
Schwarzenegger has brought a sunny optimism to a Capitol long infected with a fatalistic belief that California is too big and complicated to be governed. I judge him from afar, as most Californians do. I live in Los Angeles. As a former Sacramento reporter still writing about public affairs, I follow state government and political news but not as intensely as I once did. I've never met the governor and I don't think I know anyone on his staff.
In other words, I am a semi-informed voter.
To me, Schwarzenegger is the big-picture guy on television with a dynamic personality who pops up at every disaster, fulfilling his role as the visible leader and head cheerleader. That's important in this time of huge fires in drought-afflicted states -- and the fire crews are doing their job, a testimony that a key part of state government is indeed working. As governor, Schwarzenegger gets some credit for that. I wish, however, that he would take the initiative in putting limits on subdivisions being built on the fringes of fire zones.
He's the governor who takes on entrenched interests such as the prison guards union, which has inordinate influence in the Capitol. It has helped wreck the state prison system, a point Schwarzenegger should make over and over again in the event that the union's recall campaign makes it to the ballot.
I like the way he didn't buckle under the Legislature's demand for an increase in the withholding of state income taxes from Californians' paychecks, which would have taken more money from taxpayers amid this historic financial crisis. He seems to relish the combat, going into the fights looking as though the thought of losing has not occurred to him. People admire that quality.
I like the way he keeps things simple yet brings a sense of drama to his activities. He is able to do this because he was a movie star, but that alone isn't enough to govern effectively. A lot of movie stars are duds without a script. Schwarzenegger, on the other hand, is intelligent and has an innate talent for politics.
I agree with your rundown of the governor's accomplishments, Bill, although I'd call the workers compensation reform painful for workers rather than merely imperfect for them. I have been impressed with Schwarzenegger's determination to rebuild the state's infrastructure, long ignored in the past, and his action to get stem cell research going.
His other legacy is that he has made moderate Republicanism respectable. The right-wing cult in the Assembly, which has perverted Reagan's conservative legacy, has been exiled to the fringes, capable only of blocking anything constructive. The right-wingers will survive in their gerrymandered districts and come up to Sacramento to do their dog-in-the-manger act. But after Schwarzenegger, it will be hard for anyone from that faction to ever gain the governorship.
Schwarzenegger is a centrist, as are most Californians. His greatest legacy would be to be succeeded by another centrist.
As for him, the U.S. Constitution bars him from running for president, and he's too big for the Senate or a Cabinet post. I don't know his future, but as you said, Bill, the Schwarzenegger story is far from over.
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.
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Op-eds and editorials on the most important topics of the day.