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Teetering King Arnold 

Thursday, Apr 27 2006
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Arnold began 2005 as one of the most popular governors in our history, seemingly poised to become an important political figure in America. Alas, by the end of the year, he was one or two more big mistakes away from becoming Jesse Ventura with better acting chops. Here are five key moments in his “annus horribilis,” to borrow Queen Elizabeth II’s neat little phrase about years that turn out, well, not so well.

State of Chaos

Arnold’s stumble from the throne got a big boost with his annual State of the State speech. Striking a much harsher and more partisan tone than he’d displayed through most of his campaign and first year in office, he confronted legislative Democrats with conceptual reforms on teacher quality, public pension reform, budget controls and redistricting — all legitimate issues, which he might have addressed from the good government center in this mostly Democratic state. Instead, he cast Democrats as the bad guys and Republicans as the good guys. Afterward, he was surprised that he was now seen as having moved to the right, noting that he was still pro-choice, pro-stem cells and pretty pro-environmentalist. Ironically, he intended to push a proposal on global warming (which he finally unveiled in June), which would have made it much harder to spin him as a conservative. But that didn’t make it into the speech.

Evil Little Democrats

In February, he spoke to the state Republican Party convention in Sacramento. It was a harshly partisan speech filled with messianic (“Those poor little guys,” referring to the Democrats, “they think they can tear me down, but they can’t. They are at 30, I am at 60”) and Manichean (“There,” he declared, gesturing toward the Democratic-dominated Capitol, “where the evil is”) overtones. Clearly not focused on a closing line from a favorite film, Patton, “All glory is fleeting,” he looked for all the world like a man filled with hubris in a profession not exactly known for humility.

Bombing in the Kitchen

In the spring, Schwarzenegger realized he would have to go forward with a set of initiatives that was decidedly undercooked. It turns out that none of “his” initiatives were actually developed and vetted in his own shop, notwithstanding the fact that he had the biggest and most expensive political operation any California governor has ever had and all the resources of the governor’s office at his disposal. He ended up relying on allies he didn’t control, and his operation failed to perform due diligence.

The pension-reform initiative he ended up backing could have taken benefits from the survivors of cops and ­firefighters killed in the line of duty. It was ignominiously yanked. His merit-pay-for-teachers measure was also a loser and was quietly dropped. Absent any other education reforms, his teacher-tenure initiative looked like an exercise in scapegoating. His own polling showed his budget ­initiative was easily cast as a power grab that cut education spending. And the redistricting initiative was so sloppily done that it was nearly tossed off the ballot entirely.

A prudent politician might have pulled the plug. But the charge of the light brigade was on.

The $8 million Cigars

In August, as exclusively reported in the Weekly, Arnold engaged in marathon weekend negotiating sessions at his L.A. mansion with Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez to strike a compromise on his reform agenda and avert a November showdown at the ballot box. Some departing members of his staff were against this. The governor’s failure to forge a last-minute deal with Nuñez, on whatever terms, led directly to his humiliation at the polls in November, which cost him some $8 million from his own pocket.

Surrender with a fig leaf would have been better than what happened to him in the special election.

Clinging to a Lesbian

In November, after his “Year of Reform” agenda was decisively defeated across the board, the governor veered leftward with loose talk of a $50 billion infrastructure bond, freaking out his Republican base, which wondered what happened to his “live within our means” rhetoric of, oh, a few days earlier. There was no plan. In fact, there still is no plan, even though his office is required by law to compile a list of infrastructure needs, which it has failed to do two years running.

Then he really flipped out Republicans, the only ones still approving of him, by appointing as his chief of staff Democrat Susan Kennedy, a top aide to recalled Governor Gray Davis. A lesbian who married her partner on Maui and in her youth kept a scrapbook of Jane Fonda before becoming a leader of Fonda and Tom Hayden’s late Campaign for Economic Democracy, Kennedy is well to the right of where she used to be. If it still matters, she is very capable.

Schwarzenegger looked out of control. Not a good thing for a politician trying to find his footing on the comeback trail.

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