Schwarzenegger’s recall gamble

California’s prison guards union, angry about years of contract and other battles with the state government, announced a petition drive Monday to recall Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The governor’s initial response was to denounce the effort as a threat designed to secure the guards an unreasonable pay increase. “The state should not spend more money than we take in, and their intimidation tactics will not make me change my mind whatsoever, because I happen to not represent the [guards union],” he said. “I represent the people of California.”

But, if the union’s recall drive proves to be serious, the wiser course for Schwarzenegger would be not to fight but to embrace a recall vote. He might even help pay for the signatures needed to qualify it for the ballot.

Yes, in normal times, it hardly makes sense for a governor to call for a vote on his own removal from office. But very little about California and its government makes much sense right now.

The governor is stuck, unable to build the consensus necessary for government to function.

The budget is nearly three months overdue -- a record -- and there seem to be few signs that the Legislature’s hyperpartisan Democrats and Republicans can reach a compromise. The state’s prison system is effectively being supervised by the federal courts because the governor and Legislature have been unable to address problems with overcrowding and medical services. And despite a dangerous drought and a broad agreement on the need to rebuild the water infrastructure, California’s elected leaders have been unable to reach an accord on a water bond.

In his second term, the governor has been politically toothless. The pattern is well established: Schwarzenegger says it is time to act on a difficult problem, he negotiates with stakeholders, listens to experts on all sides, fashions a bipartisan compromise and receives praise from commentators for his work.

And then nothing happens. The Legislature ignores him or becomes consumed in its internal partisan battles. His compromises die quietly.

The lame-duck governor has tried nearly every conceivable strategy to get his proposals through. He’s made nice with legislators. And he’s threatened them. He’s raised the possibility of taking disputes outside the Capitol, with ballot measures and special elections. And he’s demanded that lawmakers remain in the capital to work out their differences.

He’s railed against raising taxes. And he’s now proposed a temporary sales tax increase to help solve the budget impasse.

He’s tried to keep his nose out of the legislators’ talks, removing himself from direct budget negotiations in particular. And he’s tried to ram his compromises (on the budget and on water -- the latter a bond he fashioned with Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein) down the throats of lawmakers.

Nothing has worked.

Schwarzenegger desperately needs new momentum, but that requires a victory, and no one in Sacramento is willing to give him one. He had political capital from his 2006 reelection, but he spent it last year pursuing major reform aimed at providing health insurance for all Californians. He got widespread agreement from interest groups and from the Assembly, but it died in the Senate, felled by liberal Democrats (who held fast to pipe dreams of a single-payer system) and conservative Republicans (who thought the compromise was too liberal). It was the second time in his governorship -- the first came in the disastrous 2005 special election -- that he spent his supply of political capital without getting anything in return.

This year, his popularity has declined further. Only 38% of state residents approve of his job performance in the most recent poll from the Public Policy Institute of California. Schwarzenegger has more than two years left before term limits force him to leave office at the end of 2010. But his governorship is effectively over if he doesn’t find a dramatic new way to escape his predicament.

That’s why a recall vote would be good for him. Schwarzenegger, because of how he entered the office in 2003 -- elected after Gov. Gray Davis was recalled -- would be in a good position to tap another recall vote to get back some of the mandate he showed up with that year.

To gain from this recall, he would have to welcome it. European presidents, working in parliamentary democracies, often call new elections when their programs are blocked and they want a new mandate. California’s European-born leader could do the same thing.

Schwarzenegger would have to level with the public. “You elected me in 2003 because the state government was a mess, the budget was out of control and the Legislature and governor weren’t solving big problems,” he could say. “Well, I’ve tried every tactic I can think of to address these problems. I’ve compromised again and again. But we’re not delivering the big changes we need.”

Schwarzenegger could pivot from there and say: “If you think I’m the problem, that a new governor could find a way that I haven’t found, then kick me out of office. I’ll be fine. My wife and kids will be delighted to have me home.

“But if you think I’m moving in the right direction, then vote down this recall -- and send a message that the Legislature needs to take action. I’ll go back to Sacramento, and we won’t do anything until they pass the compromises I’ve offered.”

Such a campaign, for all its considerable risks, might well have advantages. It would focus public attention on the state’s problems. It also would draw out -- and into the public spotlight -- some of the interests and politicians and interests who are sabotaging compromise in the dark corners of the Capitol.

If he defeated a recall, Schwarzenegger would get one last chance at becoming the kind of history-making, reformist governor he has long promised to be. The union’s threat is a gift in disguise. Schwarzenegger ought to unwrap it and make it his own.

Joe Mathews, a contributing writer for Opinion, is an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation.