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Schwarzenegger Tries New Tactic: Tact

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger freely admits to having a big mouth that gets him in trouble and is hard to control.

But he’s trying, he says.

“Girlie men.” “Three stooges.” You’re not hearing that stuff anymore.

Especially you’re not hearing: “I am always kicking their butts.”

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He didn’t realize those were nurses protesting at the back of his Women’s Conference last December when he talked about kicking their butts, the governor says.

Anyway, he was referring to “special interest” butts -- specifically public employee unions.

Nurses -- then in a battle with the governor over nurse-patient ratios -- have been kicking his butt ever since.

“That was a mistake,” he conceded in an interview. “You know, if I could redo it, I would not have said that.”

Schwarzenegger is a natural showman, but not a born diplomat.

“Like my wife [Maria Shriver] says many times, ‘Arnold, your mouth will make you always a winner, but your mouth also gets you into trouble.’

“And that’s the truth. So let’s just say this is one of my problems.”

He acknowledged it with a sign of resignation.

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I asked if he has tried to mute the mouth.

“Always, my whole life, I try to control it. But, I mean, I can’t sometimes. Even when my wife goes to me before press conferences [and cautions], ‘Don’t say anything wrong.’ And then something comes out and it goes south.”

He chuckles. “I mean, what are you going to do?”

All that jabbing at legislators about being “girlie men” was supposed to be “funny,” he says. “It was never meant to insult anyone or be degrading.”

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Schwarzenegger apparently trips over his tongue trying not to sound like a politician -- while being tugged in opposite directions by handlers.

“You get sometimes caught in the middle,” he says, “where people want you to be ‘you,’ but then people want you to be ‘a politician.

“But then when you talk like a politician, they want you to be more like you. And then when you say things more like you, the other side attacks and says, ‘Well, how can this guy talk like that as a politician, a governor?’ So you cannot please everyone.

“I just thought afterward that [language] is something maybe I can leave for the night shows.”

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Belittling verbiage hasn’t been Schwarzenegger’s only slip-up -- hardly the sole cause of his popularity plummet.

“Let me tell you, I made a lot of mistakes. I’m not saying I’m doing this job perfectly,” he says.

“The key thing is that you recognize when you make a mistake, and then you try to correct it and try to move things in a different way. Have I made mistakes in the way I negotiated? Could have been. Did I not reach out enough? Could have been.”

Schwarzenegger here is sounding very human -- an eager, talented apprentice candidly acknowledging he still has much to learn in the new job -- rather than the programmed robot he played as a movie star and too often has resembled as governor.

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But he never is far from the campaign trail -- never long “off message” -- as he promotes his “reform” proposals on the Nov. 8 ballot.

“All I can tell you is that we cannot continue on the way it has been,” he adds, “where everyone is intimidated by the unions. The legislators are frozen.”

Going after the powerful public employee unions was not a mistake, he insists, even if organized labor has raised more than $80 million to fight his ballot proposals, mainly by beating him up in TV ads that have shrunk his poll numbers.

Like governors before him -- particularly his political mentor, Pete Wilson -- Schwarzenegger has become increasingly resentful of public employee unions.

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“You cannot move the state forward,” he says, without reining in unions and limiting the tax money available for public employee jobs, pay and benefits.

Labor especially is fighting Proposition 76, a state spending cap, and Proposition 75, requiring public employee unions to obtain members’ permission before their dues can be spent on politics. Schwarzenegger proposed Prop. 76 and has endorsed Prop. 75. Polls show the former trailing badly, the latter leading.

Democratic legislators, the governor complains, “cannot make decisions about what is right for the people. It’s all about what is right for the unions.... When the speaker [Assemblyman Fabian Nunez of Los Angeles] and I negotiated, he had to go check with the union bosses [to see] if he could make a deal.”

Nunez would call that an exaggeration, but it is indisputable that unions greatly influence Democratic lawmakers whose campaigns they bankroll.

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“I made a very conscious decision a year ago,” Schwarzenegger says. “I sat down with my team and said, ‘Do I want to continue just to be a very popular guy, but not get things done the way I envisioned, or do I want to really get in there, in the meat of it, and make the changes we need?’ ”

But neither Schwarzenegger nor his strategists had envisioned him losing this much popularity.

He could have -- should have, many believe -- focused on only one “reform,” like a spending cap, rather than toting a bulky four-prop package. He doesn’t buy it.

It’s like climbing Mt. Everest, he says. “If the guy makes it, then everyone says this is terrific. And if he doesn’t make it, it’s ‘I told you that you shouldn’t go up this big tall mountain.’ I mean, it’s bogus....

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“In the meantime, I say this is doable. I think we can win all those initiatives.”

If Prop. 76 fails, he warns, Democrats will push a tax hike.

“You know something, we’re dealing here with addicts. Spending addicts....

“It’s an addiction problem that they have. They cannot help themselves.”

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Calling Democrats “addicts” -- what would Maria say?

George Skelton writes Monday and Thursday. Reach him at george.skelton@latimes.com.


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