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Arnold’s Toughest Role

Illustration by Mr. FishTo chart the rise and fall of Arnold Schwarzenegger, you need only focus on one set of numbers. He got carried into office by a populist groundswell in a special election, drawing a record turnout and winning more raw votes than Gray Davis garnered in his ill-fated re-election. Now, a mere two years later, the same uber-governor is struggling to salvage his political fanny by banking on a low turnout in next month’s totally uncalled-for and unpopular election. From a raucous, landslide election whose effervescence and energy defied the pundits’ wisecracks about it being an insulting circus, to a special election that is, alas, an insulting circus.From Arnold Schwarzenegger, tribune of the enraged masses, to the Governator, hiding from the enraged masses.That’s one helluva trajectory in only 24 months. A whole lot more of a sweeping dramatic arc than in your average Terminator movie.The only chance that Schwarzenegger has of winning one or maybe more of the ballot propositions he’s backing and coming out of the November 8 election with a modicum of re-election momentum is to have the voting disproportionately dominated by the hard-line Republican base — with everyone else sitting at home in disgust.Even if Schwarzenegger’s program somehow survives next month’s election — even if he wins his 2006 re-election bid — gone forever is the image and the inspiration of the outrider, bigger-than-life Governator bloodying the noses of the commentariat and victoriously leading his frothy followers to some better tomorrow. Welcome to the New Arnold. Arnold, the man. Arnold, the politician. Arnold, the partisan party hack. The guy who wins elections by depressing the voter turnout.Hard to believe that little more than a year ago, while in Sacramento, I saw a platoon of unionized hotel workers combing the halls of the Capitol, feverishly lobbying for Schwarzenegger. The governor had wisely built the broadest coalition possible in support of renegotiated compacts with Indian gambling tribes and, going much further than Gray Davis, turned labor rights and union recognition into a make-or-break issue.This is the same governor who now complains that California languishes under a brutal dictatorship of “union bosses” and who demands that the state’s 2.4 million-strong public-employee unions be deprived of the ability to make large political contributions.Public financing of elections is one thing. A good thing. But a governor who takes tens of millions from industry and business interests then wants to smother the voice of labor is quite another. That’s because this Arnold is not the same one whose election was celebrated by thousands waving brooms in the air. As it has turned out, the more appropriate implement to have been shouldered that day would have been shovels.We know when Arnold the Governator became Arnold the hack. Right after New Year’s, when he bullied and blustered and bragged that it was time to push his Year of Reform — and it mattered not if the Legislature liked it or not. But I’ve yet to hear a satisfactory explanation as to just why Schwarzenegger made such an arbitrary and — ultimately — suicidal turn.Some are insistent that this was inevitable, that Schwarzenegger had always planned to impose a right-wing blueprint on the state, and that he cleverly misled us into believing he was something other than a Bush Republican, or Pete Wilson with a smile.I don’t buy it. It was Arnold who acquired the hollowed shell of the California Republican Party, not vice versa. And during his first year, Arnold — the Old Arnold — not only found a way to work with stalwart liberals like former Senate Pro Tem John Burton, he also filled more than a third of his cabinet with Democrats, gave 40 percent of his judicial appointments to Democrats, named a bona fide environmentalist to head the state EPA, championed a global-warming bill much stiffer than the Kyoto accords, took a much more liberal approach than Gov. Davis had on criminal sentencing and prison reform, supported measures that benefited farm workers, and broke with Bush on stem cell research. So what led Arnold astray? What blocked him from his golden opportunity of becoming another Hiram Johnson? Of parlaying his celebrity, his vast appeal, and his independent wealth into an era of bipartisan, if not anti-partisan, reform? What kept a clearly intelligent and ambitious man from understanding that not only Indian tribes and teachers’ unions, but also big corporations and chambers of commerce were political special interests? Certainly, Arnold has enough strength of personality, enough self-confidence to resist the threadbare counsel of the most ideological GOP partisans in his coterie. I can’t really picture Schwarzenegger turning to his former communications secretary and current campaign operative, Rob Stutzman, and saying: “Rob, you guys who lost the whole state to the Democrats, vaht do y’think I should do now?” No question that some of the more reptilian Republicans close to Arnold gave him bad, if not terrible, advice (like the boneheaded and short-lived idea that he pander to the Minutemen). But it was Arnold’s choice to accept it or reject it. You can accuse the governor of many things, but being a passive pushover isn’t one of them.The more likely explanation of Schwarzenegger’s radical shift is a combination of ego, arrogance, newcomer incompetence and ideological self-delusion. When he finally had time to stop and think, to craft his strategy, he ran right up against his limitations. His human limitations. His limitations as a man and, worse, as a politician. The politician who has bumbled into a plebiscite on his own future, more than on any particular issue. The politician on whom we must now decidedly turn thumbs down.


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