POLITICS NOVEMBER 13, 2006
Last fall, Arnold Schwarzenegger couldn't escape the huge crowds of union members and Democrats who protested his ballot initiatives that proposed reshaping the state's education, budget, and political systems. Protesters surrounded hotels where he spoke,gathered outside TV studios and restaurants where he appeared, and even confronted him in hallways and kitchens. The angry hordes reflected a statewide rejection of the once-popular governor--more than 55 percent of Californians disapproved of his job performance, and Democratic challengers led in early polls on the 2006 governor's race. At rallies, the chants of nurses, teachers, firefighters, and celebrities like Warren Beatty could drown out the governor's words. In desperation, Schwarzenegger's advance team pointed giant stereo speakers at the protesters and blasted the anthem of the Los Angeles band War--"Why Can't We Be Friends?"--at full volume.
This fall, the same song could serve as the official slogan of Schwarzenegger's reelection effort, which may be the most effective Republican campaign in the country. A year after his four initiatives went down in defeat, Schwarzenegger is leading in the polls and feeling the love just about every place he goes. Witness the scene in late September inside a hotel ballroom in Burbank,where Schwarzenegger was to sign a bill requiring state pension funds to divest from Sudan. Outside, there was not a single protester. Inside, George Clooney and Don Cheadle, who had lobbied for the bill from the set of Ocean's 13, joined the ceremony and praised the governor. Clooney was particularly effusive. Between denunciations of genocide, he and the governor bantered about their roles in the flop of Batman & Robin, in which Clooney played Batman and Schwarzenegger was Mr. Freeze.
Other notables who have flocked to Schwarzenegger include British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who praised the governor for his"extraordinary work and extraordinary leadership" on the environment during a trip to California, and the Dalai Lama, who appeared with the governor last September during a women's conference put on by First Lady Maria Shriver.
But far more impressive than these celebrity shotgun weddings are the relationships that Schwarzenegger has established with the politicians who were plotting his demise a year earlier. The Democratic legislative leaders, state Senate President Pro Tempore Don Perata and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, have been fixtures at elaborate bill-signing ceremonies, and Perata has campaigned with the governor for a package of infrastructure bond measures on the ballot this fall. The mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa,whose plan for more mayoral control over his city's schools was strongly backed by Schwarzenegger, also has done joint appearances.None have officially endorsed Schwarzenegger, but the message is unmistakable.
Schwarzenegger's cozy dealings with leading Democrats appear to be the reason why the governor, who trailed Democratic challenger Phil Angelides by six points last year, leads by double digits in the most recent public polls. The state's major newspapers have fallen hard for this story line, unanimously endorsing the governor for reelection in editorials that hail Schwarzenegger for his move to the left and cooperative tone. The San Jose Mercury News, in backing Schwarzenegger, said that Angelides "apparently can't even persuade the state's top Democrats to stop doing grips-and-grins all over the state with the governor."
Viewed up close, however, Schwarzenegger's reelection strategy appears less like a move to the left than a clever effort to neutralize interests with the resources to defeat him. And his cooperation has involved giveaways--funding boosts to pacify some interests, the signing of interest group-sponsored legislation to please others, and the abandonment of policies that had offended unions and Indian tribes. A governor who won office by promising to challenge the status quo has now begun to accommodate that status quo. Even as he cruises to victory on November 7, the method by which Schwarzenegger has launched a political comeback could comeback to haunt him.
Schwarzenegger's 2005 initiatives were widely seen as a turn to the right. But the governor--at heart a showman, not an ideologue--saw his reform proposals as tough-minded, centrist policies that only he could advance. In interviews with me earlier this year,Schwarzenegger said that the defeat of his initiatives in the special election was not a rejection of the need for structural reform in California but, rather, a public rebuke of his confrontational, impatient stance with the legislature and interest groups. He should have taken more time, been more conciliatory, he concluded. "I rushed it, " he said of his reform effort. "If Would have nurtured it, it would have been different."
After the defeat, Schwarzenegger resolved to look for every opportunity to reach compromise with Democrats and interest groups,no matter how small the issue. But he focused on reaching accommodations with groups that could hurt him politically. In May,he cooled some of the anger of the California Teachers Association by increasing education funding to a level that he had previously promised but failed to deliver. The teachers' union, which spent tens of millions successfully fighting his initiatives in 2005, has endorsed Angelides but has devoted much of its considerable war chest this fall to other priorities. Schwarzenegger neutralized labor on another issue by signing legislation to hike the minimum wage by
$1.25; in previous years, he had vetoed similar bills.
Some of his critics on the left lauded Schwarzenegger for these and other reversals, but, in truth, he had little choice. Labor could have forced through a minimum-wage increase by sponsoring a ballot initiative. The teachers' union might have won an increase in education funding through a lawsuit it had filed against the governor. (By boosting the funding, he was able to settle the lawsuit instead.)
Further evidence that Schwarzenegger's moves are more strategic than ideological is that he also has abandoned more liberal positions when it suits him. After championing rehabilitation and prison reform early in his term, despite fierce opposition from the powerful prison guards' union, his team reached out to that union this year and he muted those messages. Two of Schwarzenegger's top corrections officials resigned, reportedly frustrated that reform efforts had lost momentum.
But Schwarzenegger's clearest reversal has been on Indian gambling.In his first year in office, he sharply criticized wealthy Southern California Indian tribes for seeking rapid expansion and worked to guarantee collective bargaining rights for workers in Indian casinos. But, facing the possibility that wealthy tribes could spend millions against him in the campaign this year,Schwarzenegger signed agreements that, if they are ever approved by the legislature, would grant massive expansion without the labor protections he had once insisted upon. (Instead of attacking the governor, the tribes are supporting Republicans and Democrats who backed these new compacts.)
The governor's strategy not only rehabilitated his candidacy but also demonstrated his keen sense of political timing. Since the special election, Schwarzenegger has frequently expressed remorse for his special election push-- for a time, he seemed to offer another public regret nearly every day. In a country weary of its proudly stubborn president, his mea culpas played beautifully. With each deal he made with Democrats, Schwarzenegger sold himself more aggressively as a peacemaker and, ultimately, as a national example that should be noticed in hyper-partisan Washington.
Less than a year after his political nadir, he is again offering the United States political advice. "They're frozen," he said recently of members of Congress. "They can't do anything in Washington because it's Democrats against Republicans, Republicans against Democrats, rather than, `Let us solve the problems of this country.'"
Schwarzenegger's approach to reelection is hardly unprecedented. In2002, his predecessor, Gray Davis, a centrist Democrat, won reelection after appeasing liberal interest groups and unions. That strategy--which systematically removed potential obstacles to his reelection but didn't excite the public--ultimately led to his downfall. Turnout in the 2002 election was so low that Davis left himself vulnerable to recall. To qualify a recall, one must get a number of signatures equal to 12 percent of the total number of votes cast in the most recent gubernatorial race. In 2003, a recall could qualify for fewer than 900,000 signatures, which cost less than
$2 million to get. When an anti-tax activist named Ted Costa saw how cheap a recall would be, he filed a recall petition.
Schwarzenegger may be falling into a similar trap. The same polls that show him in the lead also suggest that turnout may be a record low. An October survey by the Public Policy Institute of California showed that the percentage of Californians following the Angelides-Schwarzenegger race "very closely" stood at just 19 percent, even less than the 22 percent following Davis's race before the 2002election. (The recall and the 2004 presidential campaign were very closely followed by 49 percent and 61 percent of Californians,respectively.)
The governor's promises also add to the long-term political risk he faces. As he has made deals that require more spending, the projected budget shortfall for the next fiscal year has increased to nearly
$5 billion, up from about $4 billion this year. If he cuts spending to make up the difference, he could face howls of betrayal from the Democrats who are singing his praises this year. If he raises taxes, he would violate his core promise to Republicans not to do so. In truth, Schwarzenegger has changed direction so many times that, no matter what moves he makes next year, he's likely to be accused--with some justification--of the sort of huge flip-flop that, in California, has sparked popular revolt. As an international celebrity, the governor might make an attractive target for attention-seekers, be they liberal or conservative.
When he is asked which Schwarzenegger will show up next year, the governor is fond of saying: "There is only one Arnold." Limited to two terms and ineligible for the presidency, he has suggested this could be his last election. But California politics, like any B-movie, is full of explosive plot twists. Perhaps the one and only governor will be able to keep all his new friends. But it's more likely that 2006 will prove to be only an election-year breather before another divisive political war. It may not be long before the left or right of California politics finds the motive and opportunity to seek the recall of Arnold Schwarzenegger.