While politicians debate whether this week’s rejection of various spending initiatives in California marks the beginning of an antitax insurgency, I can’t help but wonder what might have been had Arnold Schwarzenegger immediately pushed for reform upon taking office in 2003.
The Arnold of the state’s recall election was the Barack Obama of the 2008 presidential election. He was a man of wealth and privilege, restyled as a populist outsider and overhyped by a fawning media, who came into office with a window of opportunity to achieve most anything his heart desired. For Mr. Schwarzenegger, that window remained open for about a year.
Sacramento Democrats recognized that taking on the celebrity governor was a fight they would lose. But Mr. Schwarzenegger failed to seize the opportunity. He needed to make entrenched lawmakers an offer: Either work with him on budget and government reform so everyone can have a nice bipartisan bill-signing, or expect a knock-out fight at the polls over a set of ballot initiatives.
Had he done so, he might have gotten some of the good ideas that the state needs — such as setting up a serious rainy-day fund and creating an honest spending cap — enacted into law.
Would the Democrats who control California’s legislature have rolled over that easily? We’ll never know, but the threat of taking the issue to the voters is how the governor got workers’ compensation reform through the legislature within six months of taking office.
Mr. Schwarzenegger did offer a plan to revamp state government during his honeymoon phase in 2004. But his approach — the “California Performance Review,” or CPR — was a metaphor for his political failure. It involved a 275-member task force that produced a 2,500-page proposal. That report, which offered upwards of $32 billion in savings, never caught anyone’s fancy. It was dead on arrival because it was too complicated for voters to rally behind and legislators didn’t want to see it enacted. Five years later, Mr. Schwarzenegger is back with a second, less ambitious version that one aide has said might produce “hundreds of millions” in savings.
Instead of reform, the man who promised to “blow up the boxes” of government nearly six years ago embarked on a crusade to save the planet in an attempt to win re-election in 2006. If Arnold’s political obituary were to be written today its narrative would turn on environmental issues, such as solar roof panels, hydrogen cars and curbing emissions. Missing would be the issues that got him elected in the first place — tax cuts, fiscal discipline and restoring dignity to Sacramento. The governor didn’t blow up the boxes. He just affixed “recycle” labels to them.
This is not to berate Mr. Schwarzenegger for evolving as a public servant. But the nagging question about the governor involves his core convictions and stick-to-it-iveness.
Last year was supposed to be, according to a declaration from the governor, “the year of education.” Before that, we were in the “the year of health reform.” In 2005, his theme was “the year of reform.” None of these slogans translated into tangible changes — 2005 culminated in a special election in which all four of the governor’s proposals (curbing teacher tenure, reining in union dues, capping spending, and redrawing political districts) failed spectacularly. They failed because of a $100 million war chest compiled by Democratic-friendly unions and months of guerilla campaign tactics at Arnold’s expense — the sort of thing that would have been politically difficult in the honeymoon months of early 2004.
The bottom line for the Age of Arnold is this: Catchy sloganeering has given the state’s more pressing problems the look and feel of coming attractions. (Imagine the movie trailer, “Health Reform 2007: This Time, It’s Personal.”) And the constant showdowns at the ballot box (seven special and general elections since 2002) have voters asking what exactly it is that lawmakers do in Sacramento?
In theory, all of this plays to Mr. Schwarzenegger’s strengths as a cinematic action hero and a skilled marketer. Only on Tuesday the public wasn’t buying what he was selling. Maybe Californians do hate higher taxes. Or maybe they’re not in a mood to follow a governor and legislature whose combined approval rating is below 50%. Or maybe this week’s no-confidence vote offers a lesson on leadership and principles for Mr. Schwarzenegger.
Politicians who play to the middle by championing triangulation or “postpartisan” tactics have trouble finding core constituencies. And it was core voters who turned out on Tuesday. Liberals came out because they were worried about spending cuts. Conservatives turned out because they were enraged by the thought of higher taxes. Core voters look for core beliefs.
Where is Mr. Schwarzenegger’s core? Is he the free-market, antitax candidate of the recall? The right-of-center union buster of the 2005 special election? The humbled, bipartisan eco-warrior of the 2006 re-election campaign? The tax-and-spend-and-cut Sacramento insider?
Rather than spend Election Day in California, Mr. Schwarzenegger attended a public event at the White House. There was a time when any visit by him to the nation’s capital would have sparked a flurry of stories about the need for Republicans to adopt his winning ways and amend the U.S. Constitution to allow him to seek the presidency. Today, Republicans running for governor in California go out of their way to point out where they differ with Mr. Schwarzenegger.
Maybe Mr. Schwarzenegger will be able to mount another political comeback. In the meantime, he must wish life could imitate art, and like the Terminator he too could go back in time.
Mr. Whalen is a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.