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A Bad Vintage

There’s nothing to feel smug about in the sudden fall of Arnold Schwarzenegger. And I do mean fall. Arnold went as low as you can get last week, when he uncorked yet another vintage magnum of Pete Wilson’s bitter anti-immigrant whine. First, there was Arnold’s dummkopf statement of a couple of weeks ago about “closing down the borders.” When he hustled to pull back the quote and insisted that — as an immigrant himself — he got a little tongue-tied and didn’t mean to be so draconian, a lot of folks gave the big Austrian hulk the benefit of the doubt. But after last week, when Arnold unleashed two more xenophobic grunts in one day, it’s time to give him full credit for his political idiocy. Last week Arnold popped up on KFI as a guest on the extraordinarily mean-spirited John & Ken Show (these are the vituperative, ranting clowns who think it’s funny to mockingly hand out government cheese to the homeless). First, Arnold badmouthed a billboard put up by local Spanish-language TV that provocatively suggested that L.A. was part of Mexico. Unable to bring about any of the crucial reforms he’d promised the state, the Governator instead bellowed that the sign was offensive and should be immediately taken down. Now, wouldn’t that change all of our lives? No sooner had John and Ken stopped cackling in agreement over that brilliant program proposal than the governor let loose his second volley, when he praised the already-collapsed Minuteman Project as having done a “terrific job.” The governor’s flack tried to bat away the ensuing backlash by saying Arnold was merely responding to a question he had been asked and that he wasn’t going out there with some aggressive agenda on immigration. The truth, however, is more unsettling. As the San Francisco Chronicle reported over the weekend, it was Arnold’s staff who called up the radio show and pushed their guy onto the air. And even Arnold’s increasingly inept and Keystone Kop–league staff know that John and Ken are all about bashing immigrants — that’s about all they do every show. Despite all the public disavowals, the new anti-illegal-immigrant thunder coming from the governor is calculated (at least to the degree that his staff had to take off their shoes to count out the moves in this strategy). It’s desperation time for Arnold, and with even chunks of his base starting to slip, a couple of the geniuses around him figure they’ve found a new way to polarize the electorate in their favor. Or, better said, the old Pete Wilson way. You will remember that Wilson’s riding of the anti-Mexican horse got him elected in 1994. The second thing it did was help wipe out the California Republican Party four years later. All of which means that Arnold’s current penchant for stirring up the muddy politics of race was hardly inevitable. When he was campaigning to replace Gray Davis, Arnold was not “Pete Wilson With a Smile,” as Democratic Party lackeys portrayed him. Wilson was (and is) a sorry has-been who destroyed the state Republican Party. Arnold was not the cat’s-paw of Wilson’s old team. On the contrary, Schwarzenegger simply hired a lot of the old Wilson crew because they were a ready-made team of political professionals. No one nowadays seems to know who is in charge in Arnold’s shop, so I’m not about to speculate. Yet, it seems rather obvious that some of these relic Wilsonites have convinced Arnold that they have found the path back to popularity and sent him out swinging. I wouldn’t worry that any great wave of racism is going to be set off by the governor’s remarks. People who subscribe to the Minuteman theory that Mexico is secretly plotting to take back California by salting it with Mexicans hardly need Arnold’s endorsement of their views. No, the first victim of Schwarzenegger’s folly will be Schwarzenegger. A year and a half ago, he was enormously popular among Latino voters, who, indeed, helped him crush the hapless Cruz Bustamante. In these voters’ eyes, Arnold has turned himself — overnight — into . . . well . . . Pete Wilson, but without a smile. Nothing to celebrate here. Arnold has now definitively squandered a once-in-a-century opportunity to reform the state’s corrupt political system. Running as a Republican, the supposedly independent-minded Schwarzenegger could have pulled a Nixon-Goes-to-China and rattled both parties by standing up to the special interests (beyond only Indians, nurses and teachers). Instead, Schwarzenegger turns out to be heading up one more mediocre, slavishly pro-business Republican administration prone to pandering to nativists. It’s a loser for him. And a loss for the entire state. Hasta la vista, Arnold.