By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
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By Jill Stewart
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Yet vast and lofty Schwarzenegger reforms — from restructuring government in response to a state “performance review,” to his reform-minded 2005 ballot measures, to an ambitious effort to mandate individual health insurance for all — have come and gone. Schwarzenegger would now probably like to see global-warming-emissions standards as his signal achievement, but that could easily falter.
What went wrong with the Schwarzenegger governorship, leading to what has shaped up as the debacle of 2008? Take your pick:
Nothing went wrong with
While the governor declined to be interviewed for this article, his office points to such successes as the 2006 passage of the infrastructure bond initiative (a move that has received praise from President-elect Barack Obama); the incredibly hard-fought drama that resulted in passage of workers’ compensation reform in 2004; the measure to end legislative gerrymandering approved by voters last month; and his insistence on a “rainy-day fund” during this year’s endless budget squabbles. Others point to the passage of Assembly Bill 32, a sweeping law aimed at climate change.
“His workers’ comp reform was historic,” says former state Sen. Jim Brulte, the widely respected GOP Senate minority leader back when Schwarzenegger still believed he could reform Sacramento. Schwarzenegger upended the nation’s most disastrous workers’ comp system, which by 2004 was wiping out small businesses and nonprofits that couldn’t pay per-worker insurance premiums of more than $6 for every $100 in wages. Brulte says that single reform, still bitterly attacked by its opponents, “has helped the business community and created jobs. And he’s the first governor in recent history to have a plan for growing California’s infrastructure. You’d have to go back to Pat Brown to find an infrastructure plan and implementation.”
Brulte acknowledges that Schwarzenegger failed to make radical structural changes to California budgeting and governance as trumpeted in the governor’s 2004 California Performance Review. But, says Brulte, “Revolutionary ideas are hard for status-quo folks to accept.”
It’s not Arnold’s fault; the state is ungovernable
“California governorship does weird things to people,” says Robert Salladay, a journalist who gathered a major following with his detailed, against-the-grain stories about Schwarzenegger’s struggle to fix Sacramento, published in the San Francisco Chronicle. “After Schwarzenegger,” says Salladay, “I’ve become a thorough pessimist about the idea that anything can be done, save through a wholesale slaughter of the constitution and all the laws we now have about how the state does budgeting.”
Brulte points to stridency in the Republican and Democratic parties that has driven average voters away but increased their grip on Sacramento. “In 1990, 8 percent of registered California voters declined to state party preference. Today, 19.4 percent are decline-to-states,” says Brulte. “Who are those people? They’re moderate Republicans and Democrats who looked at the right and left wings of their respective parties and said, ‘I don’t have much in common with you, so I’m leaving.’”
For several years, hardcore partisans have been in control of both parties in the Assembly and Senate. So, Brulte says, “I don’t think it’s accidental that Gray Davis, an instinctively moderate Democrat, had trouble with the legislative wing of his party, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, an instinctively moderate Republican, has had the same problem with his own party.”
Schwarzenegger moved away from his core principles
California Republicans say it is Schwarzenegger who abandoned them — or was never with them. During his appearance at an Assembly Republican caucus in September, GOP legislators needled the governor — by wearing their clearly marked name tags.
Former staffers and legislators speak angrily of the governor’s habits of snubbing grassroots Republicans as being uncool, and instead hanging out with newfound friends like then–Assembly Speaker and Democrat Fabian Núñez, ducking out of GOP conventions, and famously warning the GOP that it is “dying at the box office.” Today, the Republican leaders cut off by Schwarzenegger routinely skip the “Big Five” meetings that lately have been held between the governor and Democratic leaders — a schism that former minority leader Brulte, a major voice at Big Five meetings who made sure the governor and GOP legislators had open lines, would never have dreamed possible.
California Republicans are a weird bunch, and Schwarzenegger’s fit with his rural, socially conservative partisans was never all that clear. “Arnold has always befriended people, socialized with people, and even married into a family of people who were to the left of him,” says Joe Mathews, who once covered him for the Los Angeles Times and authored The People’s Machine: Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Rise of Blockbuster Democracy. “He may have been surprised by what [Republicans] were like when he did begin to spend time around them.”
But Arnold is a Milton Friedman acolyte, so that reasoning doesn’t explain why Friedmanites — such as libertarians who contributed to the performance review — are especially disillusioned. Nor does it account for the widespread animosity toward Susan Kennedy, Schwarzenegger’s chief of staff, who has overseen what may go down as Arnold’s worst year as a political leader.