Respond to this Article May 2005

Is Arnold Losing It?

Gov. Schwarzenegger is looking less like Reagan and more like Ventura.

By Mark Z. Barabak

The governor of California is seated in his office at Oak Productions, smoking a cigar and sipping espresso, his black cowboy boots propped on the distressed wood table before him. A plate of apple strudel sits untouched. The Santa Monica outpost, which houses the governor's film company, doubles as his state office whenever Arnold Schwarzenegger is in the neighborhood. It is quite unlike any governor's office anywhere in the country, that much is certain. The walls are lined with movie posters and photographs of Schwarzenegger in all manner of political and commercial poses. Outside the door to his inner office stands a life-size mock up of Schwarzenegger as the Terminator, his face half gone and a red laser eye gleaming. Inside the office, amid a jumble of movie memorabilia, rests a stuffed crocodile. Overall, the effect is interior design by a very rich, very extravagant 16 year-old.

The governor is speaking of his role on a larger stage as smooth jazz wafts in the background. Far be it for him to offer prescriptions for the GOP. "I'm not elected to represent the Republicans," Schwarzenegger said over the course of a 55-minute interview with The Washington Monthly. "When I look at my pad of things that I want to accomplish every day, or every week, or every month...it does not have on there anywhere to get more Republicans registered.... It's not something that I ever get up in the morning and say, 'This is my mission.'"

That may be just as well. His support for gay rights, stem-cell research, legal abortion, gun control, vigorous environmental protection, and prisons that focus less on punishment and more on rehabilitation are hardly in the mainstream of GOP thinking. He suggests that religion "should have no effect on politics,"' giving a back-of-the-hand to the Christian conservatives who have become a pillar of the national party. In many ways, Schwarzenegger's style and philosophy recall those of California's last celebrity governor, Jerry Brown, who famously practiced what he called "canoe politics: Paddle a little on the left, paddle a little on the right, and keep on going right down the middle." Or, as Schwarzenegger himself put it: "One has to find some kind of happy medium in this whole thing. So that's the way I do my governing."

It may not win hearts and minds in the ruddiest red-state precincts. But it may be the only way for Schwarzenegger to succeed in California, where the GOP remains a distinct minority in both the statehouse and among registered voters. Schwarzenegger is something of an anomaly in Sacramento, not quite an accidental governor, but one elected under extraordinary circumstances: a recall election that short-circuited the usual political process and played like campaign burlesque. It may have been the only way Schwarzenegger could have been elected governor, even in California.

The glamour and novelty he brought to the drowsy state capital served him well throughout his first year in office. But in the second reel, much of the glitter has started flaking from California's movie-star governor, making him appear a good deal more like one of the standard-issue politicians he regularly vilifies.

When he was first elected, some Republican strategists--as well as fretful Democrats--thought Schwarzenegger's centrist approach, enticing to voters of both parties, might represent the future of an even more dominant national GOP. There was discussion of amending the Constitution to let an immigrant like the Austrian-born Schwarzenegger become president and speculation that he, like a certain other actor-turned-California-governor, would become a transformative national figure.

But in recent months, such talk has diminished considerably. Schwarzenegger showed during the recall that conventional politicians in a hurry-up campaign are no match for someone of his outsized personality. But governing has proven far different. He has been forced to pare back much of his second-year reform agenda. His poll numbers are sagging, and newly emboldened Democrats are challenging the governor at every turn. Now, the question is whether Schwarzenegger can make the transition from a cartoon-like character, all swagger and bluster, into a political leader capable of using his fame and considerable charm to achieve something lasting and meaningful.

Can he repeat the success of Ronald Reagan, who picked up Barry Goldwater's fallen standard and made Western conservatism the governing philosophy of the Republican Party? Or is Schwarzenegger destined to relive the implosion of Jesse Ventura, another muscle-bound insurgent who won early acclaim as Minnesota governor, stumbled badly, then disappeared--from politics anyway--without a trace?

Benchmarking Reagan

Back in the 1970s, when Ronald Reagan was California governor, the Los Angeles County Republican Party sponsored a biannual seminar known as the "Western Winner's Roundup." From across the region, GOP nominees for Congress and state legislatures would gather at an airport hotel for a series of workshops on campaign strategy and tactics. Everyone was welcome; privately, staffers called it the "Western Loser's Roundup," reflecting the often mediocre quality of the candidates and their dismal performance on Election Day.

The highlight each year was Reagan's keynote address. The governor would arrive early and retire to a small conference room where he would individually greet each of the candidates and pose for an hour or so before dinner. Smiling his crinkly smile, treating his supplicants like the big shots they weren't, Reagan appeared in grip-and-grin photos from the Cascade Mountains to the Sonoran Desert.

The current governor of California is decidedly more stinting in his political generosity. When Republican candidates gathered after the 2004 primaries at a luxury hotel across the street from the state Capitol, Schwarzenegger dropped by and posed for portraits with the hopefuls. But afterward, his office controlled the pictures for release at the governor's discretion. Later, when Schwarzenegger agreed to a lone fundraiser for U.S. Senate candidate Bill Jones, who was waging a hapless struggle against Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer, reporters and camera crews were barred. (Not that it mattered; an air-traffic glitch prevented the governor from showing up at the Beverly Hilton hotel. There was no make-up appearance.)

Schwarzenegger's standoffishness should come as little surprise. He was elected governor essentially as a nonpartisan combatant. The effort to recall Democrat Gray Davis had been led by conservative Republicans; but once they gathered the voter signatures needed to force a special election, the field was open to all comers. In all, 135 candidates eventually made the ballot, including a Ripley's menagerie of hustlers, performance artists and other unabashed publicity-seekers, most of whom were not already politicians. There was no primary and no runoff, thus no need to pass the litmus tests of one party or another. Schwarzenegger ran not as a Republican but a reformer, with a message perfectly pitched to one of California's regular voter upheavals.

In a state that's still as blue as the Pacific (Democrats enjoy an 8.5-point registration edge over Republicans, virtually the same as before the governor was elected), keeping the Republican Party at arm's length may be the smartest way for Schwarzenegger to position himself for reelection in 2006, should he run. (Republicans send up nightly prayers. But the governor's influential wife, Maria Shriver, recently told Oprah Winfrey she wants her husband home.)

Action, action, action

When Schwarzenegger was elected in October 2003, he promised to revolutionize the way California operates. He spoke of action, action, action. But in the roughly year-and-a-half since, his record has been decidedly mixed, stopping well short of the extravagant promises he made while campaigning and the larger-than-life image he brought to Sacramento.

Upon taking office, Schwarzenegger immediately repealed an unpopular vehicle license fee--blowing a further $4 billion hole in the state budget--and overturned legislation that would have granted driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. Both moves won wide applause. He worked with Democrats to overhaul the workers' compensation system, renegotiated gambling compacts with the state's Indian tribes, and forged a bipartisan coalition to push through a $15 billion borrowing measure that kicked California's fiscal reckoning further down the road, limiting the pain for politicians in both parties. But as Dan Schnur, a Republican strategist and one of Sacramento's wryest observers, put it, "Nobody builds statues to the guy who passed workmen's comp reform."

Schwarzenegger began the new year by setting his sights considerably higher. In his January 2005 State of the State address, he outlined the most ambitious legislative agenda Sacramento has seen in a very long time. He proposed paying teachers based on merit and not their length of employment, partially privatizing the retirement system for state employees, enshrining a legal limit on state spending, eliminating nearly 100 bureaucratic boards and commissions, revamping the state's prison system, and eliminating partisan gerrymandering by allowing retired judges, not lawmakers, to draw the state's political boundaries starting in 2006.

"If we here in this chamber don't work together to reform the government,'' he warned lawmakers, "the people will rise up and reform it themselves. And I will join them. And I will fight with them."

Schwarzenegger drew a line: If lawmakers defied him, he would go over their heads and call a special election, the sixth statewide vote in three years. To back up his threat, the governor launched a $50 million fundraising frenzy, which made Davis--once the very model of political voraciousness--appear amateur by comparison.

After much bluster from both sides, the governor began yielding, shelving certain proposals and signaling that he was open to negotiations on others. He was plainly wounded when teachers, nurses, police, and firefighters--all having separate beefs with Schwarzenegger--began dogging his public appearances and mussing his public image. He fired back with TV ads and rhetoric that were alternately inflammatory and contrite.

Part of the problem seems to be apathy. For all the governor's efforts, the obtuse matters of redistricting and worker retirement just haven't stirred Californians much. Ineptitude also played a part; the governor abruptly dropped his support for a measure overhauling the state pension system when it turned out that the ballot initiative could deny death benefits to police and firefighters. The governor capitulated after weeks of bad publicity, including complaints from the widows and orphans of public-safety officers.

But more than anything, Schwarzenegger has suffered from the way in which he tried to challenge the entire power structure in Sacramento: frontally, all at once, with little preparation for the inevitable backlash.

It may be the contradictions are finally catching up with Schwarzenegger. After campaigning as the scourge of special interests and vowing to take money from no one, the governor has collected political cash at a ravenous pace, raising more than $30 million since taking office. (Invitations to a recent Sacramento fundraiser, "An Evening With Governor Schwarzenegger," blithely offered access at four levels, starting at $10,000 for a ticket and one photograph and topping out at $100,000 for a seat at the head table.)

He routinely assails Democratic lawmakers at the same time that he insists he would prefer to work in bipartisan fashion. In one radio interview, Schwarzenegger criticized lawmakers for wasting time on "silly bills," such as one regulating the height of motorcycle handlebars. Unmentioned was the fact the governor had signed the bill into law three to four weeks earlier.

Or perhaps it is merely the turning of the political season. Whatever the reason, the governor is no longer viewed as the invincible dragon-slayer he once was. While most handicappers agree that Schwarzenegger remains a strong favorite to win reelection in 2006, the prospect no longer seems as certain as it did as recently as six months ago.

Worse, perhaps, for a governor so image-obsessed has been his decline in public opinion surveys, which has been almost entirely a function of Democratic and independent defections. (Like President Bush, Schwarzenegger continues to enjoy near universal support among Republicans despite his disdain for party-building.) By late February, his approval number in the statewide Field Poll was a decidedly mortal 55 percent, down 10 points in five months. More galling still, the governor's rating stood a tick below that of the rejected Davis before the bottom fell out for the beleaguered Democrat amid the 2001 California energy fiasco.

An encore performance

If the narrative arc sounds familiar--a charismatic, unconventional governor comes to the statehouse in a weird election, succeeds at minor reforms, but soon overreaches with ambitions exceeding his political skills--that's because we've seen this movie before.

Former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura won office in 1998 as an independent in a fluky three-way contest. He began his tenure with promise and in his first year achieved some modest accomplishments. He managed to push an on-time budget through the Democratic Senate and Republican House with relative ease. He also made a start at improving public transit and reducing congestion in the Twin Cities area. By the end of his second year, however, voters grew weary of Ventura's macho act, impatient with his inability to balance the state budget or work with lawmakers, and indifferent to initiatives such as creating a unicameral legislature. Lawmakers, once cowed, gleefully struck back, slashing--among other things--money for the governor's security detail. Ventura left office bitter and mocked, his "populist-centrist" reforms largely unfulfilled.

The danger for Arnold Schwarzenegger is falling into a similar spiral. Voters are clearly less awed by their celebrity governor in his second year in office, and he's staked out ambitious goals that would try even a far more practiced politician. "He's shown himself to be someone who really can communicate with voters," says Tony Quinn, a non-partisan Sacramento analyst. But more than any philosophy or set of policies, he suggests, Schwarzenegger's tenure, thus far, has been primarily about salesmanship. "The problem he seems to be having now is getting a consensus on what we need to sell," Quinn adds. In short, the business of governing.

There are reasons to believe Schwarzenegger is smarter and more resilient than Ventura. He has shown a willingness to cut his losses before the political wounds fester: When the public responded with outrage to a proposal to hasten the execution of cats and dogs--at a savings of $14 million to local communities--Schwarzenegger quickly dropped the plan, thereby limiting the damage from one of his biggest public relations blunders. He backed off controversial plans to slice health-care funding for the elderly and disabled and, more recently, abandoned efforts to "wipe out" 88 government boards and commissions in the face of widespread political opposition.

Stuart Spencer, the campaign genius who helped Reagan become governor, then move from Sacramento to the White House, is among those keeping a close watch on Schwarzenegger.

"It's too early to tell," Spencer says from his retirement aerie above Palm Springs. "He's an aberration. He's not viewed as a Republican, he's viewed as a star and a personality. A lot of personalities have a short shelf life." Some, a la Reagan, make the transition." In Schwarzenegger's case, Spencer surmises, his future rests on whether he proves himself "a great political leader. He hasn't proven that yet."

President Arnold?

Arnold Schwarzenegger would love to be president someday. (First, however, there is the matter of his reelection in 2006. He is not expected to announce his intentions before the end of the year, if then.)

Before Schwarzenegger can run for president, however, there is the matter of the U.S. Constitution, specifically Article II, which holds that a president must be a "natural born" citizen. Schwarzenegger was born in Austria and maintains dual citizenship. Supporters have started a movement to amend the Constitution, with the governor's quiet support. (The Schwarzenegger camp sent one booster a complimentary picture of the governor to use in her effort, sparing her the royalty fee she'd been paying for a different shot.)

Still, the odds of success are exceedingly long. In the whole history of the United States, just 27 of more than 10,000 proposed amendments have passed. Opinion polls have shown little public support for overhauling the Constitution; one survey of California voters showed opposition running 2-to-1, and that was back when Schwarzenegger's popularity was at 65 percent. Moreover, consider the political hurdles: A proposed constitutional amendment must win the support of two-thirds of both houses of Congress, followed by ratification by 38 states. As Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scholar at the University of Southern California, notes, "There's not a senator who doesn't wake up in the morning and look in the mirror and see the next president of the United States. You think they're going to roll over and open the door for Arnold Schwarzenegger? I don't think so."

Still, an immigrant governor can hope. For someone who arrived in America with little more than a gym bag and his dreams (as the movie poster might say), nothing can seem utterly impossible. And refreshingly, Schwarzenegger does not offer the usual rococo double-talk when asked about his future political prospects.

"If I do my job really well in California and I create the reforms this year, I don't have to worry about anything,'' he says. "Running for governor. Walking away from the whole thing.... I can have all the different options, to run for another office, whatever it may be. The key thing is to do whatever you do well, and that opens opportunities."

Hence, Schwarzenegger stands at a pivot point in his governorship. The policies that he has made his priority in 2005 are of a much different order than anything he has previously attempted, and not just because Democrats and their allies are fiercely resisting the governor, tagging him with the partisan label he has worked so hard to avoid.

The fact is that Schwarzenegger's greatest political successes have come when he transcended politics and rose above partisanship. First, as an epic figure in the 2003 recall and, more recently, when he linked hands with prominent Democrats--among them U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and former Govs. Davis and Brown--to push through last year's borrowing measure and defeat a provision to relax the state's three-strikes prison sentencing law.

There has been little public clamor for such reforms as redrawing California's political lines, overhauling state worker pensions, or changing the way public schoolteachers are paid. "He's facing a whole new battle, a whole new level of competition," says Mark Baldassare, director of research at the Public Policy Institute of California, a non-partisan think tank in San Francisco. "There are pretty serious odds for him to overcome as a Republican governor."

Democrats in Sacramento have learned not to underestimate Schwarzenegger, in the same way that Democrats in Washington know better than to count Bush out too soon. But the president has never tried to do what the former muscle man is attempting to accomplish: maintaining his popularity with Republicans while shunning much of what the party stands for; bidding for the support of Democrats while antagonizing many of the party's core constituencies; creating a sense of urgency around issues about which most voters have never given much thought.

Schwarzenegger, who has known little in the way of professional failure, continues to brim with outward confidence, even as he acknowledges uncertainty over where both he and California are headed. "All I know is that I have faith in myself and in my abilities to bring people together, that we will be successful," Schwarzenegger said, punctuating his point with the stub of his cigar. "But how it's going to happen, that should be a nice surprise."

Just ask Ventura

For all his heresies, some Republicans say the party would be foolish to ignore Schwarzenegger and his hybrid philosophy, treating him as some overstuffed attraction to be trotted out at fundraisers, or to give an American Dream speech like the one he delivered on Bush's behalf at the Republican National Convention last summer.

"If we want to get some blue states to turn red, we ought to take a lesson in what he's saying,'' says Tom Rath, a veteran GOP strategist in the lead presidential primary state of New Hampshire.

Schnur, the Sacramento party strategist, suggests there is an important difference "between a precarious majority and a permanent majority." "Bill Clinton spent the better part of the 1990s convincing economically upscale, socially liberal voters"--the famed soccer parents--"to move Democratic," Schnur says. "George W. Bush has spent the last several years convincing economically populist, cultural conservatives to move in precisely the opposite direction. To take the current Republican majority and lock it in long term, some of those soccer parents are going to have to come back. And Schwarzenegger represents the sector of the party best equipped to speak to those soccer parents."

But the Republican Party is hardly in the shambles that followed Goldwater's landslide defeat, suggesting Schwarzenegger would have to prove himself an extraordinarily effective leader to move the national GOP in his centrist direction. Which means, for starters, delivering on his vaunted "year of reform."

Experience shows there is a limit to the politics of personality. Unorthodox political philosophies tend to rise and fall with the fortunes of their messenger. Celebrity can only carry an insurgency so far. Just ask Jesse Ventura.

Mark Z. Barabak is a roving political writer for the Los Angeles Times.


Mission   Masthead   Features Archive    Writers Guidelines   
Feedback   Customer Service    Subscribe Online    Make A Donation

This site and all contents within are Copyright © 2006
The Washington Monthly 1319 F Street N.W. #710
Washington DC. 20004.
Comments or questions ... please email editors by clicking here