He’s a Lot Weaker Than He Looks


In recent weeks the signs have mounted that we are witnessing the twilight of the Schwarzenegger administration.

One by one, the governor’s grand initiatives have come apart. The box-exploding state reorganization? Abandoned. The balanced state budget? A non-starter. Government without special interests? A joke. Bipartisanship in Sacramento? Never happened.

Of his four-part 2005 reform initiative -- redistricting reform, teacher pay reform, pension reform, fiscal reform -- barely anything survives to place on the November ballot. This is probably not a bad thing, because like virtually every other policy initiative Schwarzenegger has proposed since his election, these reforms generally have been carelessly conceived and half-baked in execution.


The so-called Live Within Our Means Act, for example, has all the hallmarks we have come to expect from this administration. It purports to address a serious issue, namely the state’s inability to enact a balanced budget. While claiming to provide a moderate solution, it advances the narrow interests of lobbyists, in this case Allan Zaremberg of the California Chamber of Commerce and William Hauck of the California Business Roundtable, the measure’s authors.

Its provisions are so sloppily contrived that they would exacerbate the problems it claims to alleviate. While the administration rails about how much of the state budget is subject to automatic formulas, the act would place even more spending on autopilot. It would conflict with other state laws, including spending initiatives passed by the voters, raising the prospect of endless confusion and litigation during budget seasons for years to come.

Most characteristically, it’s designed as a ballot initiative. This is Schwarzenegger’s preferred method of governance, because it doesn’t require subjecting a proposal to the battle-testing of the legislative process or to public debate. It only requires the spending of money -- which the chamber and Roundtable can provide in abundance -- and the presentation on television of Schwarzenegger’s electric grin.

The governor’s predilection for such remote-control governing is understandable. For all that he claims to absolutely love his job, he has never demonstrated a true enjoyment of politics as it’s normally understood -- or for that matter, much aptitude for it. He doesn’t project any of the qualities we see in born politicians whatever their ideological stripe, such as Bill Clinton’s empathy for ordinary citizens, Lyndon Johnson’s relish for horse-trading or Richard Nixon’s intellectual fascination with the political process.

All that Schwarzenegger seems to enjoy is the opportunity to surround himself with attention and pomp -- the trappings of political power, the appearances before huge crowds, the slavish interviews by Oprah and Katie. He’s like one of those admirals in Gilbert and Sullivan, who adorn themselves in elaborate uniforms dripping with medals but don’t know the first thing about going to sea. (And don’t want to know.)

Everything else about governing seems to leave him bored. Perhaps the passage of his budget bonds and a workers’ compensation reform early in his term convinced him that the game is easy. But the bonds didn’t solve anything about the state budget, the workers’ comp reform is a work in progress, and he’s achieved nothing of note since then. His lack of understanding that politics is the art of building consensus and reaching compromise over the long term explains why he retreats into name-calling and petulant sulking when he doesn’t get his way, a personality trait that never has been even remotely charming and has now become tiresome and self-destructive.


It’s also becoming clear why he has never articulated a coherent philosophy of government -- he doesn’t have one. When George Stephanopoulos of ABC News flew to California earlier this year to delve into the governor’s political principles, he was so nonplused at Schwarzenegger’s expressions of complete indifference to major national issues -- Social Security, immigration, judicial appointments -- that he was reduced to soliciting the governor’s Oscar picks. This is one of the three men “shaping the future of the Republican Party,” as his wife, Maria Shriver, told Vanity Fair? (The others she mentioned are Rudolph Giuliani and John McCain.)

Shriver’s understandably fulsome judgment still gets echoed by the stars of the national press. Back in February, for example, the columnist George Will proclaimed Schwarzenegger a political Merlin poised to become one of the state’s “most transformative governors.” He further predicted that the ripples from Schwarzenegger’s revolutionary political program would soon “roll eastward across the country.”

Within a month of Will’s panegyric, the governor’s ballot initiatives started blowing fuses. Will thus found himself in the same position as almost everyone else who has taken Gov. Schwarzenegger at his word, including educators, local government officials and the Democratic officeholders who went along with him for the first year: hung from a limb.

Schwarzenegger’s program is a shambles, his popularity is deteriorating, and he seems to be spending less time in the public eye. The state is deeper in debt than ever. The schools and the roads are crumbling at a faster pace. Far from being one of California’s “most transformative governors,” he’s well on his way to ending the term with scarcely any accomplishments at all.

No wonder that his wife recently appeared on “Oprah” to telegraph his reluctance to run for a second term. In the next gubernatorial term, all the problems that Schwarzenegger has failed to address in this one will come home to roost. He’d be insane to run again, and we’d be insane to reelect him: A Gov. Schwarzenegger even more bored and nettled by the mundane tasks of governing California than the one we currently have in office is a truly scary prospect.


Golden State appears every Monday and Thursday. You can reach Michael Hiltzik at and read his past columns at