Arnold Schwarzenegger is enjoying a second honeymoon with California voters, and this time he fully deserves it. The key point is not that he has become more conciliatory with the state Legislature, or that he has stopped gunning for the teachers and the nurses, or that he has been pushing a more Democrat-friendly agenda all 'round-although there are reasons Democrats might be pleased with such developments.
The point is that he is showing a remarkable propensity for tearing up the rules of politics as usual and actually getting things done. In other words, he is not so much governing like a Democrat-the conventional wisdom of the moment-as thumbing his nose at the etiquette of the two-party system in general. Who says a Republican can't do things for the environment? Who says he has to return favors to all the corporate interests who bankrolled his disastrous special-election campaign? Who says he can't, in the end, think and act for himself?
Arnold is breaking rules and subverting expectations with a delicious glee that, I suspect, voters were hoping to see from him right from the moment he jumped off his Terminator III motorbike and into the fight to recall and replace Gray Davis. Until now, he's appeared interested only in playacting the part he auditioned for-if that. But something has surely redirected his attention. Perhaps it was the rock-bottom approval ratings that plagued him for much of 2005. Perhaps it was the pride and personal prestige bound up in his bid for reelection this November. Or perhaps it has just taken him this long to figure out how to do his job.
The results, though, have been undeniable.
The deal he struck with the Legislature to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent over the next 14 years is potentially huge-it's the first time any significant player in American politics has taken concrete steps to address global warming and is likely to have an effect on other states and other governments around the world. (Assuming, of course, that industry lobbyists and the Chamber of Commerce don't manage to undo the provisions of Assembly Bill 32 over the years to come-let's not get too excited too soon.)
The infrastructure bond he and the Legislature are championing is, once again, a crucial step forward for a state that has seen its population mushroom over the past two generations but has done precious little to shore up its system of aqueducts, levees, ports, bridges and roads. Gray Davis didn't manage it. Pete Wilson and George Deukmejian didn't manage it. But Arnold seems to have figured it out.
Some of the second-tier achievements of the summer legislative session have been equally eye-popping. Schwarzenegger, the great champion of the unfettered free market and the scourge of the Austrian-style nanny state, giving his blessing to an increase in the minimum wage? Perhaps it's the Hollywood zillionaire in him: When you're sitting pretty on a string of blockbusters and an expansive pad in Brentwood, why not pay your children's nanny $8 an hour?
I'll be honest. There hasn't been much about the bodybuilder governor I've warmed to until now. The campaign that catapulted him into office three years ago reeked of a show-business stunt, all slickly scripted lines and cute asides without any evidence of actual content. His endless quips about flexing muscles and pumping up the great state of California were corny and patronizing. He didn't seem to know whether he was promoting a movie, or a policy platform, or indeed that there was any difference between the two.
It was easy to suspect that his candidacy was, first and foremost, an ego trip, a chance for a man long fascinated by power and the ability to cast a spell over a mass audience to strut his Hollywood-superstar stuff in an arena where the decisions really mattered.
That absurd overconfidence and insubstantiality carried over for much of his first year in office. He and Maria declared everything to be "fantastic," all the while doing nothing about the big issue on the table-California's gaping deficit and structural budgetary woes-except take out a $15 billion emergency bond that only postponed the pain and dented the state's credit rating.
Arnold was still doing his I'll-be-back, iron-pumping shtick when he addressed the Republican National Convention in the summer of 2004, and he didn't have a whole lot else to offer when he made a crucial campaign appearance on President Bush's behalf in Ohio just days before the 2004 presidential election.
Then, of course, he discovered his inner Pete Wilson, dismissed the Democratic-controlled Legislature as girlie-men, vowed to kick the nurse's butts and went off on a crazy right-wing bender that lost him the sympathy of many of his core supporters-parents of public-school children, for starters-and led directly to the humiliation of last November's special election.
That fiasco was not just a defeat for Schwarzenegger. In a sense, it was the culmination of a huge lost opportunity for California. Here was a governor with movie-star charisma and oodles of public goodwill, who really had the power to bypass the Legislature and appeal straight to the people if that's what it took to shake up a moribund and corrupt political system. Having picked the wrong causes and turned the people against him, though, he lost that special aura and transformed himself, essentially, into just another lousy politician.
Now, some of that aura may be coming back. Schwarzenegger certainly has luck on his side. The state's depleted coffers have been filling up again, thanks to the improved economy, which means he no longer has to face those agonizing choices about slashing public services on the one hand or raising taxes on the other. He's also in the happy position of having raised more campaign money than Gray Davis could ever dream of, which means he doesn't have to go around begging for new favors from corporate lobbyists. He can ignore them with impunity, safe in the knowledge that they are not going to campaign against him and that, assuming he gets reelected, he has no future gubernatorial campaigns to worry about.
Schwarzenegger is also displaying newfound political savvy, thanks in large part to his new advisory team. Disenchanted Republicans may grumble that his chief of staff, Susan Kennedy, is a Democrat, but the key thing about her is not her party affiliation so much as her experience in political crisis management.
Conversely, his top media sidekick is a Republican with White House experience, Steve Schmidt, who has put an end to the George Bush-style bubble world of town-hall meetings with carefully pre-vetted audiences and handpicked radio interviews with sympathetic hosts. Schwarzenegger now speaks more easily, more spontaneously, and finally seems to be putting the excruciating bodybuilding metaphors to one side.
By now, Schwarzenegger isn't just being productive in office. He's also taking carefully calibrated risks. Whatever your political leanings, you've got to love a governor with the courage to stick it to his own party-the Republicans in the Legislature are fuming, to say nothing of George Bush, whose views on global warming and stem-cell research have been completely ignored-just as you've got to love a governor who tells a bedrock lobby group like the California Chamber of Commerce to get lost.
As I say, this is not about switching agendas from one party to another. It's about governing entirely independent of the two-party mentality. Sure, few other Republicans would make the choices Schwarzenegger has. But few Democrats would, either-just think of Gray Davis and his perennial timidity in the face of any lobbyist waving a campaign check. Arnold's on a roll, and we should all hope he carries on as long as possible before politics as usual catches up with him.
The Blockbuster Guv
At the end of his campaign for governor three years ago, Arnold Schwarzenegger held a campaign event in Orange County wherein he had a giant weight dropped onto a car, sending glass flying and crushing it flat. Never without his flair for the dramatic, the soon-to-be Governator shouted, "Hasta la vista, car tax!"
"That may have been the moment Hollywood and politics merge," said Los Angeles Times reporter Joe Mathews in an interview with CityBeat.
Mathews should know-he just released The People's Machine: Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Rise of Blockbuster Democracy. The author will be in Del Mar on Tuesday, Oct. 3, to discuss his book. In it, Mathews proposes that ballot initiatives in California have been on a convergent course with Hollywood since Hiram Johnson introduced direct democracy to the California Constitution in 1911.
"Big entertainment and direct democracy grew up in the same time and place," Mathews said.
The parallels are striking: Getting publicity for a ballot measure means making people aware of its existence first, then getting them to vote on it second. Much like marketing a movie, the backers have to create an audience where there may have been none before. Even the expenses match up: The oil companies and their allies have spent $40 million to defeat Prop. 87, which calls for an extra gas tax to support research into renewable energy. In 2005, according to the Motion Picture Association of America, the average movie marketing campaign cost $36 million.
Mathews says Schwarzenegger is the apotheosis of the new politics, but everyone has to get in the game.
"The less well-known you are, the more you need to put things on the ballot to let people know what you stand for," he said. "You need famous people to raise awareness, and big spectacles."
Joe Mathews will discuss and sign copies of his book from 7 to 9 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 3, at The Book Works in the Flower Hill Promenade, 2670 Via de la Valle, Suite A230, Del Mar. www.book-works.com.