President-elect Donald Trump may have mocked the rocky debut of successor Arnold Schwarzenegger in the faux boardroom chair of “The Celebrity Apprentice,” but as he makes his own start in the Oval Office, Trump may find he has a few things to learn from his reality TV replacement.
Long before Schwarzenegger inherited the role of firing underperformers on camera, he was the one selling voters on a pledge to fire an underperforming government. Few politicians are better acquainted than Schwarzenegger with the fickleness of an electorate that propels an outsider with an outsized personality into high office.
He experienced how swiftly a populist crowd-pleaser could go from harnessing rage to watching it ricochet in the wrong direction. Adoring crowds who reveled in his pledges to restore integrity and common sense to government turned on him when bureaucratic bloat failed to shrink.
Much of what is playing out in Washington feels familiar to the Sacramento politicos who endured the tumult of Schwarzenegger’s first years as California governor.
Schwarzenegger, too, once seemed made of Teflon, as reporters called him out on inconsistencies, half-baked plans and dodges, with limited effect. And the deal that Trump announced to keep an Indiana factory open, his public shaming of Boeing for the cost of its Air Force One contract and his serial use of social media to keep lawmakers off-balance all could have come from the early Schwarzenegger playbook.
But Schwarzenegger made early mistakes that gutted his popularity and forced him to reevaluate his entire approach. In California, there is no shortage of speculation about whether Trump is headed down the same path.
Trump’s confidants are well aware. But they boast that they have a resilience that Schwarzenegger’s team didn’t.
“They are such a high-powered collection of people, who are so used to winning,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, an early Trump supporter and prominent campaign surrogate, recently said at a Washington Post event. Gingrich predicted that the new administration won’t change course when challenged, suggesting Schwarzenegger did. “They’ll say, ‘OK, we’ve got to double, or triple or quadruple our energy level, and break through,’” Gingrich said.
That is spectacularly bad advice, according to former Schwarzenegger aides. “That kind of attitude is what almost put Arnold Schwarzenegger off the rails,” said Susan Kennedy, who successfully rebooted Schwarzenegger’s administration after being hired as chief of staff during one of its lowest points.
“If that strategy worked, they would have built a statue to Newt Gingrich when he shut down government instead of running him out of town,” said Kennedy, who had to clean up the mess after Schwarzenegger tried to outmaneuver obstinate lawmakers with a slate of incendiary austerity and anti-union ballot measures.
Voters rejected every one of them.
“I can show you my scars,” said Joel Fox, a veteran anti-tax advocate who worked closely with Schwarzenegger. Trump, he said, should heed the lessons learned from mobilizing so many enemies all at once. “We got into eliminating teacher tenure, and rolling back union dues. What the heck were we doing? It was a mistake for Arnold not to limit himself. And Trump could just as easily make the same mistake.”
The turnabout happened quickly. Schwarzenegger’s approval rating soared north of 70% after a first year in which he repealed a much-hated car tax, redesigned an ailing worker compensation system and persuaded voters to buy into a big borrowing package to put the state on a path toward solvency.
Overreach during his second year changed everything.
Voters had agreed with Schwarzenegger on the problems plaguing the state, but he misjudged their appetite for his solutions.
Trump faces the same risk. His plans to deliver change by repealing Obamacare, cracking down on illegal immigration and upending trade agreements all expose him to backlash. Many of the same voters disgusted by the status quo in California redirected their disgust as they learned how Schwarzenegger’s plans threatened to degrade their schools, healthcare and parks.
There are, of course, sharp distinctions between the two blustery, celebrity Republican outsiders. Schwarzenegger faced a hostile Legislature, while Trump has a friendly Congress. Schwarzenegger plunged into “Schwarzenegger University” to learn as much policy as he could from some of the sharpest minds in California government, while Trump has yet to show himself much of a wonk. Schwarzenegger crusaded against climate change, which Trump has called a hoax. Ballot initiatives are not an option for Trump.
But both won election promising they could use their business acumen, media savvy and star power to tackle intractable societal problems. And in Schwarzenegger’s case, the lack of control of the Legislature was offset by popularity ratings that eclipse Trump’s. The temptation to wager big was as irresistible for the former California governor as it now may be for Trump.
“There was this feeling of, what’s the point of being here unless you are going to do some bold things?” said Rob Stutzman, who was Schwarzenegger’s communications director.
But Schwarzenegger’s stagecraft, his snubs of protocol, his forceful personality that persuaded voters not to settle – all signature Trump tools – diminished every day of his administration. “The cool factor of celebrity has a shelf life,” said Stutzman. “There is only so much of that you can do. At some point you have to start looking like and acting like a governor. At some point, Trump has to start acting like a president.”
One moment made clear that Schwarzenegger had lost the crowd. Before a scrum of reporters, he climbed up to a giant spigot gushing with red liquid, announced he would be stopping the flow of red ink in Sacramento, and turned the valve shut. But unlike earlier, similar stunts, this one flopped. Voters were tired of the shtick.
By then, even the refusal to bow to party orthodoxy, which had been a selling point for Schwarzenegger, and which Trump recently rode to victory, had become an albatross. The infighting in the governor’s suite was legendary. Top staffers assigned underlings to spy on other top staffers. The governor’s liberal Hollywood chums battled with the fiscally tight alumni of the Pete Wilson administration he recruited. It was unclear who had the blessing of a chief executive who, like Trump, thrived on unpredictability.
The same politicians who initially cowered in Schwarzenegger’s presence began to defy him as it appeared the wheels were coming off. “As soon as you lose, every political enemy sees an opportunity to dismantle you more,” said Bonnie Reiss, a close Schwarzenegger friend and advisor who now runs the institute named after him at USC.
Schwarzenegger was no longer the brash, crowd-pleasing outsider. The problems he had inherited, he now owned. He humbly told Californians, “If I was to make another ‘Terminator’ movie, I would tell Terminator to travel back in time to tell Arnold not to have another special election."
Schwarzenegger’s collaborations with Democrats from that point on are well-known. He championed the state’s landmark climate change policy and leveraged an uptick in the economy for a wildly popular infrastructure package that helped secure his reelection.
Less known is how he would go on to patiently and sometimes masterfully play an ego-bruising, inside game in pursuit of the platform of fiscal restraint and political reform that he first ran on. There was no more glory to be had as governor while the national economy went into free fall, and with it, California’s finances. But Schwarzenegger eked out policy victories that had enduring impact on the state with every budget negotiation.
“Trump could learn a lot from what Arnold did right, which was to take policy seriously,” said Mike Murphy, one of Schwarzenegger’s top strategists. And another lesson he might adopt is learning to fret less about getting attention for yourself at the moment than winning the long game.
It was a tutorial Schwarzenegger began after the president-elect trashed his “Celebrity Apprentice” debut on Twitter. The former California governor suggested that perhaps Trump’s focus was misplaced and might be reoriented toward “the people’s work.”
“I wish you the best of luck and I hope you'll work for ALL of the American people as aggressively as you worked for your ratings,” Schwarzenegger wrote.
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