I hope I'm not going soft, but I found myself thinking last week that we could do worse than Arnold. And unless the next governor learns from his mistakes, we probably will.
When Gov. Schwarzenegger said he would uphold the state Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage and would not endorse a November ballot initiative to overturn it, it was a reminder that he hasn't turned out to be quite the blowhard his early antics suggested he'd be. I've actually started getting a little wistful about losing the guy.
But don't take my word for it. Listen to the assessment of Schwarzenegger by Bill Carrick, a Democratic consultant who has worked for President Clinton, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and former treasurer and gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides.
"His politics are the hybrid politics of fiscal conservatism -- mind the store financially, keep taxes down, create a state that's more business friendly -- combined with more progressive social positions. He's obviously pro-choice, he's obviously very gay-friendly, on most issues he's pro-environment. If you were sitting around trying to draw up the perfect political position for a statewide Republican candidate, he's ideal."
I'm not saying I wouldn't change a few things about Big Boy if I could -- starting with the Hummers. But given the polarized red-blue politics in our fair state, we're unlikely to find anyone so naturally purple.
People are beginning to talk about who's likely to follow Schwarzenegger in 2010, and there are some familiar names along with some newcomers.
"I think most people would say that Jerry [Brown] is the front-runner on the Democratic side," said former Gov. Pete Wilson, who also mentioned Antonio Villaraigosa and Gavin Newsom, the mayors of Los Angeles and San Francisco, neither of whom have Brown's statewide name recognition.
And on the Republican side?
State Insurance Commissioner "Steve [Poizner] is definitely among those who have to be considered a serious candidate," said Wilson.
I like Poizner, myself, and he's loaded, which means he could finance a serious campaign.
But let's be honest here.
Republicans are trembling at the prospect of Poizner being their guy. It's nothing against the bespectacled Poizner, a smart and capable gent I find rather impressive.
But is a state that's had so many years of The Terminator really going to turn around and elect Mr. Peepers? He can't even come close to matching the star power of a grizzled Jerry Brown.
So who does that leave?
Well, there's not much heavy lumber on California's GOP bench, and some of the bigger names, like state Sen. Tom McClintock, would be more suited to statewide office if they lived someplace like Montana.
That's why party leaders are roaming the state on an elephant safari, hunting for new blood. There's lots of chatter about Meg Whitman, who made a bazillion dollars at EBay and was a Mitt Romney supporter.
"I've met her and she's quite impressive," said Wilson, who likes the Bay Area resident's smarts and remarkable success in business management.
But does she have "it"?
"I think she does have presence, but that's not just a matter of personality. It's being able to connect, and that's a little hard to judge."
Stu Spencer, a former Reagan handler, told me he doesn't know the first thing about Whitman's politics or personality.
But the sage of Palm Desert does know this much: The GOP is already out of the race if it doesn't back a moderate along the lines of Schwarzenegger.
And Republicans better keep in mind that if Brown is in the race, they'll be running against "a master politician" with a respected family name.
"He knows how to turn 360 degrees on a dime," said Spencer. "In 1978, he was totally opposed to Prop. 13 on primary night. By the next 12-hour period Jerry was on the tube and in print" talking about enforcing it. "You would have thought he invented it."
Well, whether it's Brown, Villaraigosa, Newsom, Whitman, Poizner or somebody no one has thought of yet, I'd like to suggest on behalf of all Californians that we're tired of staged events, cynical stunts and lame excuses.
Whoever the next governor is, please do not symbolically drop a wrecking ball on an automobile if you have no clue how to cover the loss of car tax revenues.
Please do not tell us you're going to get big money out of politics and restore integrity to the office, and then bend the rules while hustling every special interest in the Western Hemisphere.
Please don't insult your predecessor for borrowing and then max out all the credit cards.
And take a cue from Schwarzenegger. It was only after he stopped the grandstanding and name-calling that he actually got some traction on the important work of rebuilding the state's infrastructure, safeguarding the environment and showing the national GOP how to stop completely alienating gays and Latinos.
He even seems on the brink of telling us the truth about taxes.
Maybe if the next governor starts where Schwarzenegger leaves off, he or she can accomplish those things he only talked about:
Fixing the structural budget deficit.
Leading the way on redistricting, so legislators represent the mainstream and not the fringes.
Bringing a spirit of bipartisanship to problem-solving.
Meanwhile, let's not give up on the aging redhead yet. There's still time for him to add to his modest list of accomplishments.
Schwarzenegger is smart to try and fix the state's water problems, said Spencer, because that wouldn't be a bad legacy at all. And Wilson noted that his last two years in office were among his most productive.
No time to waste, Arnold.