Don’t blame Schwarzenegger

Capitol Journal

It’s documented and official: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is now as unpopular as Gray Davis was when Californians recalled Davis and crowned Schwarzenegger.

Davis never should have been yanked. He didn’t deserve it. That didn’t solve California’s problems. And Schwarzenegger doesn’t deserve his record-low poll numbers. He’s not the real problem either.

The problem is California’s unique and unworkable system of governing, an awkward contraption of conflicting parts created mostly by the electorate.

In November, we’ll elect another governor who’s destined for more frustration and failure without significant systemic change in Sacramento.

Change such as allowing state lawmakers to pass a state budget on a simple majority vote, overhauling a broken tax system, controlling runaway special interest initiatives with their ballot box budgeting, requiring a rainy-day budget reserve, easing up on legislative term limits and making local governments and schools less financially dependent on Sacramento.

Voters already have approved changes aimed at electing more centrist, pragmatic lawmakers willing to compromise. The changes -- snatching legislative redistricting from self-serving lawmakers and creating an open primary system -- will take effect in 2012, if reformers can beat back repeal efforts by politicians trying to protect the status quo. It’s ironic -- some would say fitting -- that Republican Schwarzenegger now suffers the identical public disapproval of the Democratic governor he dispatched seven years ago.

The nonpartisan Field Poll reported last week that only 22% of California voters approve of Schwarzenegger’s job performance; 70% disapprove. That was Davis’ low mark in August 2003.

Every conceivable category of voter -- Democrat, Republican, male, female, young, old -- has about the same low regard for Schwarzenegger.

It’s a steep fall from the 65% approval, 22% disapproval that he enjoyed in the summer of 2004, during his first year in office.

One bit of advice for anyone who’s serious about governing: Don’t overpromise, as Schwarzenegger did. He ultimately gagged on his own sound bites: “Sweep the special interests out of the Capitol.” “Blow up the boxes.” “Tear up the credit card.” “Live within our means.” “No new taxes.”

The political neophyte -- like Republican Meg Whitman currently -- ran for governor railing against Sacramento corruption and incompetence. Then he got elected and automatically became the most familiar face of the Sacramento he had vilified. When he couldn’t deliver on all his promises, voters consigned him to the culprit class along with virtually everyone else in the Capitol.

It’s a big reason why you don’t hear Democratic Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown, the career pol, promising a lot of specifics as he again seeks the job he held 28 years ago. He understands the governing realities.

Outsiders running for office “essentially have a psychology that ‘Everyone before me screwed everything up and I’m going to fix it,’ ” says Treasurer Bill Lockyer, who has held elective state office for 37 years, in both the executive and legislative branches.

“It’s the infinite wisdom that candidates start with. But change is difficult. There are other smart people with different values and ideas. It takes time for the good ones to realize that what’s needed to get things done is mediation skills.” Lockyer -- who might have been governor himself if he were more ambitious and photogenic, and sometimes less blunt -- adds that “our state voters have very high expectations of what government can do. And their haste to criticize is very high.”

It also fits the times: stagnant wages, disintegrating nest eggs, a 12.3% state unemployment rate and national scandals.

The Field Poll found that 79% of California voters believe the state is seriously off on the wrong track -- “the gloomiest assessment since the early 1990s,” says poll director Mark DiCamillo.

The voters are naturally grumpy.

That’s not to say there haven’t been things to grumble about with Davis and Schwarzenegger.

Davis froze early in the energy crisis as California was robbed by out-of-state power pirates. But the federal government -- George W. -- should have helped and didn’t. Davis also was bullied by lawmakers into overspending and over-cutting taxes, and he waited too long to try to recapture the revenue.

Schwarzenegger blew opportunities and squandered superstardom. And his first moves were missteps: cutting the car tax, then borrowing big to pay for the cut and everyday state expenses.

He did achieve some goals: retooling the costly workers’ compensation program, obtaining a $37-billion infrastructure bond package, launching an attack on global warming -- now being challenged by a November repeal effort -- and pushing the two political reforms: redistricting and open primary.

But state government is in shambles, with a projected $19-billion deficit. Blame both the national recession and the Sacramento system.

Schwarzenegger is now demanding public pension and budget reforms as his price for ending yet another shameful summer budget stalemate.

I’d say give him both in exchange for his support of Proposition 25, a November ballot measure to reduce the required budget vote to a simple majority from two-thirds. A tax increase still would need two-thirds.

The high budget hurdle is the biggest obstacle to governing in Sacramento. California is the only state that requires a two-thirds vote for both budgets and taxes.

American democracy, with its complex checks and balances, was designed for long deliberation and slow action. But California’s version is ludicrous. It makes the state practically ungovernable. The proof is that unpopular duo, Govs. Davis and Schwarzenegger.