Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Tuesday met the limits of his celebrity: Even a campaign built around his action-star persona could not persuade voters to embrace his “year of reform” agenda.
Worse for Schwarzenegger, the special election he called to cement his power may have diminished it instead. The three measures he brought to the ballot -- Propositions 74, 76 and 77 -- were rejected. A fourth measure that he vigorously endorsed, Proposition 75, was trailing with 86% of the vote counted.
Schwarzenegger staged a campaign intended to capitalize on his once-robust box-office appeal. He largely shunned unscripted encounters with voters and face-to-face debates with political opponents, sticking instead to friendly exchanges in venues packed with admiring supporters.
His campaign echoed the strategy he employed in the 2003 recall campaign, when the product he was selling was “Arnold,” the outsider determined to “clean up” Sacramento with the same wit and resolve he showed in his movies.
But in the special election, he was pitching a complicated package of ballot initiatives. He wasn’t asking voters so much to “join Arnold” -- his inclusive recall message -- as to choose sides. And in California, his side -- the Republican side -- is greatly outnumbered by Democrats and political independents.
Schwarzenegger cast the debate in stark terms. He was a bold force for progress; the teachers, firefighters and nurses arrayed against him were selfish “special interests” defending a sclerotic political culture.
He employed a vocabulary straight from Hollywood. He referred to the election as “Judgment Day” -- the name of one of his “Terminator” movies. He cast Tuesday’s vote as the “sequel” to the 2003 recall. He constantly reminded voters they had once paid money to see him in the theaters -- even when that allusion was a reach. He ended his rallies with his cinematic signature: “I’ll be back.”
Inside Schwarzenegger’s circle and out, Republicans said he should have found a more serious way to speak to voters.
The problem, however, was that Schwarzenegger never seemed to make the transition from celebrity to chief executive. The obvious comparison is to another actor-turned-California governor, Ronald Reagan.
Ken Khachigian, a longtime Republican strategist who was a speechwriter in the Reagan White House, said of Schwarzenegger’s rhetorical habits: “It was like, ‘OK, we’ve heard that stuff.’ This is different now. This is policy and substance, and the speeches should have used a little different rhetoric.”
While Schwarzenegger’s approach “worked well in the recall,” Khachigian said, “The problem is that it didn’t wear very well over a period of time. After a while he was a governor, not an actor, and it’s quite a different role.”
A Republican strategist and occasional Schwarzenegger advisor put it more bluntly Tuesday, saying privately: “The act is getting stale.”
Though Schwarzenegger’s style never varied, his agenda took a dramatic turn.
Having run as a problem-solving centrist in the recall, he reached out to Democrats and independents during his first year in office. The result was a rare consensus on several major issues, including an overhaul of the state workers’ compensation system. Democratic lawmakers joined him in pushing through a bond measure to help narrow a massive budget gap.
Then things changed.
With his popularity peaking, there was talk of amending the U.S. Constitution so that a foreign-born citizen could run for president -- a tantalizing prospect for the ambitious Schwarzenegger. Many considered it implausible -- why would U.S. senators change the Constitution to benefit a political rival? -- but some around the governor were intrigued enough to entertain the prospect. They counseled a rightward shift to put the governor more in the mainstream of the national GOP.
Soon enough Schwarzenegger was openly disdaining the Democratic lawmakers he once called partners. He endorsed only Republicans in the November 2004 legislative races.
He flew to the key state of Ohio to make a last-minute push for President Bush’s reelection and later crowed over Bush’s win there. The partisan shift culminated in early January in his pugnacious State of the State speech, which opened a bitter off-year election season.
Schwarzenegger said he was determined to “reform” California for the good of all the people. But the changes he urged came at the expense of his Democratic opponents and their backers.
His plan for improving the education system, for example, came down to a single proposal, the defeated Proposition 74, a measure to extend the probationary period for teachers. Opposition was led by the California Teachers Assn., arguably the most important ally Democrats have in Sacramento. Voters also rejected Proposition 76, which would have given the governor more sway over the state budget, and Proposition 77, a measure to revise the way California’s voting districts are drawn.
Proposition 75, which would hinder public employee unions’ ability to raise political cash, was another swipe at his opponents. The governor demanded no such campaign limitations on corporations -- a huge reservoir of Republican financial support.
“They overreached,” Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, an Oakland Democrat, said Tuesday night of Schwarzenegger and his advisors.
Polls showed the governor’s once-solid bipartisan support steadily eroding throughout the year as his opponents spent tens of millions of dollars in TV ads to tarnish his image.
Through it all, Schwarzenegger behaved as though he was the same crowd-pleasing celebrity who ran two years ago. “Enjoy the show,” he seemed to be telling Californians -- ignoring the reality that he had pursued an agenda with winners and losers and real-life consequences for each.
Stuart Spencer, the veteran Republican strategist who helped Reagan become governor, then move on to the White House, noted in an interview earlier this year that “a lot of personalities have a short shelf life.”
The results Tuesday suggest that Schwarzenegger’s celebrity may not be the tonic it once was.