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Governor Schwarzenovice

With one post-debate poll showing 63 percent of voters favoring the recall of Governor Gray Davis and giving Arnold Schwarzenegger a 15-point lead, it’s time to consider the kind of governor Schwarzenegger would be.

Absent all the spin. Minus Schwarzenegger’s platitudes and scripted one-liners. Looking past his utter lack of a political record of consequence.

Schwarzenegger could prove a millstone for progressives seeking to expand gay rights, protect worker rights and pass health-care reform. It would be difficult for Democrats to assemble the numbers necessary to override Schwarzenegger’s vetoes.

With education-funding cuts looming, Schwarzenegger is likely to push a little-cost (and little-effect) reform agenda of promoting charter schools — making it easier for them to get approved and authorizing more agencies to approve them. Some students could benefit, as could some unscrupulous entrepreneurs.

Expect to see more of George W. Bush in a Schwarzenegger California. But don’t be surprised if Schwarzenegger runs afoul of his Texas buddy on environmental protections. The best outcome would be if the president did for California what he did for Florida, which got permanent protection from offshore oil drilling. In swing state Florida, W. needed to consolidate his own standing and that of his brother, Florida Governor Jeb Bush. In solidly Democratic California, by contrast, President Bush has had more political incentive to pander to the oil industry than to California voters. Bush might see things differently with a Republican governor in charge. Otherwise, Schwarzenegger will face a Hobson’s choice of either battling with Bush to protect California’s air, land and water or acquiescing to Bush environmental policies that will not go down well at home.

In last week’s debate, Schwarzenegger couldn’t talk enough about improving California’s business climate, which he incorrectly labeled as the worst in the nation. This Chamber of Commerce mentality would suggest more business-friendly appointments to regulatory commissions. Compared to Democratic appointees, these regulators would weaken environmental and worker protections and expedite development projects in the name of cutting red tape, downsizing bureaucracy and boosting commerce.

On criminal-justice matters, it would be difficult to be more Republican (that is, tough-on-crime über alles) than Gray Davis. If anything, Schwarzenegger could adopt a more lenient policy on granting parole without tarnishing his conservative bona fides. He also could stand up to the prison-guard lobby, but there’s no evidence so far to suggest that he will.

At first especially, political novice Schwarzenegger is almost certain to depend heavily on advisers for policy direction. They don’t have to be the Pete Wilson cadre that has run his campaign. But it’s hard to switch dance partners midwaltz.

Schwarzenegger owes nothing to the Indian casinos and ought to be less inclined to do their bidding than Davis, Bustamante or state Senator Tom McClintock. But the tribes don’t truly have to deal with him either. Schwarzenegger would have no unilateral authority to undo gaming compacts already in place, which commit virtually no gambling revenue to the state budget. He does have the power to negotiate expanded gaming. Yet if the tribes don’t like the offer, they can settle for operating the profitable casinos they already control under the current terms. And the existing compacts provide leeway for new casinos and tribal-based resorts. Schwarzenegger might seek to gain leverage by threatening to back Larry Flynt’s proposed gambling initiative, which would extend gaming beyond the tribes. A political battle royal would ensue.

 

Don’t expect bold policy initiatives to be in the Terminator’s screenplay. That’s partly because Schwarzenegger has proposed no substantial reforms. Besides, next year’s budget could prove at least as unsteady a tightrope as this year’s. Republican policy initiatives cost money too, be they the tax cuts of Bush or the class-size reductions of former California Governor Wilson.

In the Legislature, Democrats will once again want to preserve or even expand programs by raising revenue, and Republicans will oppose tax increases any way they can. In years of budget surpluses, Democrats can often prevail because they hold a majority of seats. But in deficit years, Republicans can block any tax increase, which requires a two-thirds vote, merely by holding ranks. Regardless of what he wants, Schwarzenegger will be hemmed in by budget ideologues from his own party, including state Senator McClintock.

California’s governor would have more leeway to shape budget priorities if voters pass the Budget Accountability Act, projected for the ballot of March 2004. This initiative would lower the budget-approval threshold from two-thirds to 55 percent. But any budget coalition would have to include majority-party Democrats — which makes the more moderate portions of a Schwarzenegger agenda the most apt to get through. There would be room for common cause between Schwarzenegger and Democrats on any issue — perhaps workers’-comp reform or energy policy — where common ground could be found. For the most part, however, state legislators already have passed the sort of left-leaning reforms that Schwarzenegger could have supported. Is it really likely, for instance, that Schwarzenegger, despite his tolerance of gay rights, would go further on the issue than this year’s domestic-partners bill authored by Jackie Goldberg?

If Schwarzenegger takes a public-relations beating on the budget, he’d be tempted, especially with the Wilson coterie giving counsel, to rally white and middle-class voters around an initiative that would, once again, make it illegal for undocumented immigrants to drive. Such a divisive effort would recall Proposition 187, the anti-immigrant campaign led by Schwarzenegger mentor Wilson. Alternatively, Schwarzenegger could work more quietly through state agencies and the Legislature to amend the alleged security shortcomings of the driver’s-license law.

Given the tough budget ahead, Schwarzenegger may well end up wishing the recall of Gray Davis had failed. In that case, Davis could have faced the budget debacle, and Schwarzenegger could have swept to glory in 2006. Unless voters tear up their scripts, it may well be Schwarzenegger facing their wrath in three years.

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