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Bring Back the Old Arnold

One day, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is off addressing a rally, railing at a do-nothing Legislature, at greedy teachers and nurses, saying he’ll fix their wagon with a special election this fall. On another day, addressing a newspaper association in San Francisco, as he did on April 19, Schwarzenegger declares that “the thing I am most proud of is that I was able to bring the Democrats and Republicans together, because this is the only way we can accomplish things.”

Give us Schwarzenegger No. 2, please. If the governor wants to refurbish his tattered image, he has to look no further than who he was last year. Negotiate major issues with legislative leaders. Stock up on cigars (even bubble-gum cigars), get lawmakers down to your patio tent and cut deals. Put the ball in Democratic leaders’ court.

Schwarzenegger planted the seeds of his troubles in January with an acrimonious State of the State address that threatened to hold a special election if lawmakers didn’t adopt his whole package by March 1. It was an unrealistic deadline and an unnecessary tough-guy attitude. Worse, for what seemed until then to be a seamless political operation, were the amateurish errors. His ballot initiative to get rid of traditional pensions for public employees, for instance, could have eliminated death and disability benefits for police and firefighters. Buoyed by such missteps, Democrats went on the attack.

Even the lobbyist corps in Sacramento has viewed the reversion to pure political infighting with alarm. This poisoned atmosphere was what voters thought they were curbing with the election of Schwarzenegger.

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The only Schwarzenegger initiative still seen as viable for a November ballot is his spending control plan. His own Republicans are split over that one, with conservatives insisting that it is far too weak. If Schwarzenegger does forge ahead to a special election (at a taxpayer cost of $70 million), his impasse with the Legislature is guaranteed to prevent agreement on a state budget, otherwise due at the end of June. Even voters disgusted with the whole show will take notice if the state goes that long without a budget.

Democrats seem to be confident they can defeat Schwarzenegger’s program at the polls and possibly discourage him from running for a second term next year. That’s a dangerous strategy. Schwarzenegger may not be as politically wounded as they think, and in any case, going after him in all-out partisan battle will yield victory for no one. Show us a voter who’s looking toward Sacramento, longing for the way things operated under Gov. Gray Davis.

Given the disunity and drift in the governor’s inner circle about the special election and various parts of his reforms, Schwarzenegger has to take charge. He needs to put some space between himself and the state Chamber of Commerce as much as Democrats need to detach from their union umbilical cord. There’s a big, troubled state out there that needs governing. A lose-lose fight over who’s top dog will go nowhere.


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