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Can You Spell Arnold Ventura?

Illustration by Juan Alvarado

“The biggest problem that we have is that California is being run now by special interests. All of the politicians are not anymore making the moves for the people, but for special interests and we have to stop that . . . As you know, I don’t need to take any money from anybody. I have plenty of money myself. I will make the decisions for the people.”

—Arnold Schwarzenegger, announcing his candidacy for governor on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno

“Arnold is a Pete Wilson Republican. It’s hooey that he’s an outsider independent. Jesse Ventura was an outsider. Arnold is trying to portray himself that way, when he’s been an insider for years.”

—Dean Barkley, Jesse Ventura’s 1998 campaign chair and the newly hired manager of Arianna Huffington’s gubernatorial campaign

Ever since Jesse Ventura, a bald, outspoken ex-pro-wrestler, talk-radio populist and maverick small-town mayor, shocked the state of Minnesota and the rest of the world by winning a three-way race for governor due in large degree to an unexpected surge of youthful voters, we’ve wondered where the next Venturan explosion might take place.

Now, with the entry of Arnold Schwarzenegger into the recall election, we’re all being told that Arnold is the next Jesse. Says the Washington Post: “Schwarzenegger’s candidacy offers something totally different, a glamorous, untested action star who could implode over the course of the campaign or — as Jesse Ventura did in the 1998 Minnesota governor’s race — excite and turn out Californians who rarely participate in the political process.”

In its cover story on the Arnold phenomenon, Newsweek reports that Schwarzenegger’s team is banking on that voter surge to carry him to victory. With early surveys showing intense voter interest in the race, analysts are predicting a huge turnout. Undoubtedly, many of the new voters streaming to the polls October 7 will be previously disenchanted nonvoters, people who I prefer to call “discouraged voters” for how turned off they have been by a process that is normally dominated by cautious, bland politicians, big-money donors, big-foot journalists, and manipulative TV ads. This is the proverbial “angry middle,” people who are neither poor nor rich, who dislike ideological extremes even as they are attracted to surprisingly radical solutions.

But is lightning about to strike twice? Is Arnold really the next Jesse Ventura?

The parallels are obvious, and they go beyond the fact that both men have big muscles. Both are celebrities crossing over to politics, seeming amateurs displacing career professionals. Both are newcomers who claim to be free of special-interest ties. Arnold’s rhetoric about being beholden to no one is straight from the Ventura playbook. Both are self-made men who succeeded in professions where brawn supposedly matters more than brains — a fact that speaks volumes about their support in working-class hangouts. Both are social liberals and fiscal conservatives. For those who buy the analogy, the final proof is the two men have been friends ever since their days filming the movie Predator, and Arnold went out of his way to attend Jesse’s 1999 swearing-in as governor.

If that image holds, then Arnold will be California’s next governor. But the differences are worth considering, too.

For starters, Ventura ran as a third-party independent; Arnold is a Republican — a point that many California voters may only now be discovering as he drapes himself with industry lobbyists from the top of Pete Wilson’s old administration. Ventura has been pointing out this difference in his own media appearances of late, and has refused to endorse his friend, saying, “I never endorse Democrats or Republicans.” Ventura was also a genuine underdog with an outsider’s passion for political reform, while Arnold is the ultimate overdog. As long as the race is about dumping Gray Davis, that won’t hurt him, but if it turns into a referendum on whether to replace Davis with a stalking horse for the old Republican establishment, Schwarzenegger could falter.

Ventura also is more of a natural politician, and seemed more comfortable in his body in street encounters with voters, while as an international celebrity Schwarzenegger has had to live a more sheltered life. Before running for governor, Ventura had honed his public persona and debating skills in live performance, on talk radio and in the pro-wrestling ring, while Arnold has only performed on the sterile and controlled stages of movie sets and TV studios. Not surprisingly, he appeared rattled in some of his first public appearances. As the press starts asking tougher questions, Schwarzenegger will be challenged to demonstrate that he can keep delivering with a popular touch. If not, his bubble may start losing some air.

“Be yourself. Be Arnold. Be the guy who can sit and have a cigar with the crew. Don’t worry if you don’t know the answer to every question asked. Just say, ‘I don’t know,’ if you don’t know. When I did this during my campaign in Minnesota, people were amazed. How revolutionary — a politician who stands in front of the people and doesn’t feed them pre-canned answers.” So wrote Ventura last week in Time magazine, advising his buddy on how to charm the voters.

 

There’s one problem with this good advice. Ventura was running for Minnesota governor at a time of great prosperity. The state had a $4 billion budget surplus. Ventura had a simple and popular program — give part of that money back to the taxpayers, and use the rest to reduce public school class sizes. That, plus his no-nonsense populist answers in nearly a dozen televised debates, convinced enough Minnesotans they could take a chance on him.

Schwarzenegger, by contrast, seems to be betting that he doesn’t need a program of any kind, beyond more afterschool programs and naming Warren Buffett an unpaid campaign advisor. Arnold’s inexperience may scare voters worried about the state’s economic and budget crises, though it’s likely that he’ll try to turn that into a strength, claiming that only someone who hasn’t been involved in Sacramento’s silliness can clean up its mess.

Two men who helped Ventura get elected governor, Dean Barkley, his campaign chairman, and Bill Hillsman, his advertising whiz, have signaled their own unhappiness with the “Arnold as Jesse” analogy by signing on with Arianna Huffington’s maverick campaign. Barkley is withering in his scorn for Schwarzenegger’s supposed bona fides. “Jesse ran against the political system as an independent, while Arnold is a Pete Wilson Republican — he’s just surrounded himself with all of Wilson’s old people,” he says. “Jesse was candid, and spoke from his heart. Arnold is scripted.”

But Barkley admits that so far, Schwarzenegger has copied the first part of the Ventura playbook very well. “Arnold’s got a very positive image, people generally like him,” he says. “By portraying himself as an outsider who’s using his own money and can’t be bought, he successfully came out of the shoot, going out there for the independent voter.” But, he adds, “The question is can he hold the independent voter by saying nothing, and avoiding debates and anything controversial?”

“We know the independent voter, perhaps better than anybody,” says Barkley. “They’re tired of the status quo. They think Democrats and Republicans are the problem, not that they can solve any problems. The issue is usually motivating them to vote. But in California, the voters are very angry. They’re tired of what the process is doing to their state. They’re enamored of Arnold now, but let’s see where we are in six weeks.”

Micah L. Sifry is the author of Spoiling for a Fight: Third-Party Politics in America (Routledge, 2003), which is now available in paperback.


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