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The Incredible, Shrinking Governor

Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez had just confirmed what the L.A. Weekly reported last week — that there are talks on between Democratic legislative leaders and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger toward a compromise deal on the special-election initiatives. In fact, Nuñez says Dems have compromises on a variety of special-election issues already on the table.

During his remarks at a Sacramento Press Club luncheon late last week, Nuñez also declined to endorse or oppose a potential split-roll property-tax initiative for next year, which potentially could see commercial property taxes rise above those on residential property. Outside the hotel conference room in which Nuñez had made his remarks, gubernatorial press secretary Margita Thompson seized on this as evidence of what her boss was saying, that Democrats want to raise property taxes. But as was pointed out to her, it was nothing of the sort. The governor was claiming that Democratic legislators like Nuñez wanted to raise residential property taxes, which Nuñez and others angrily denied.

Meanwhile, at a carefully staged event held last Tuesday at the home of an elderly couple outside San Diego, Schwarzenegger had claimed that Democrats are out to raise residential property taxes and toss the couple out onto the street. Unfortunately for him, there is no evidence of that. Was it a misstatement in the heat of the moment? No, the event was set up at the home to highlight the “threat” to Proposition 13. Why would Schwarzenegger’s advisers contrive such an easily exposed stunt?

“Arnold relates to the electorate like it is the mass movie audience. They aren’t the same,” says Warren Beatty. The Weekly reached the Oscar winner, who had a friendly relationship with Schwarzenegger but is now his chief Hollywood critic, in Hawaii, where he is vacationing with Annette Bening and their four kids. “When Arnold became a movie star, the mass audience was changing. Teenage boys are into spectacle and hype, the movies don’t have to make sense.”

The residential-property-tax stunt, followed by an equally spurious claim of a Democratic plot to raise the car tax, naturally staged at a car wash — and a not-so-spurious claim of plans to extend the sales tax to services — was part of a horrible week for the action-superstar-turned-politician, a week that ended with more evidence of further decline in his already sharply diminished standing with Californians.

While Schwarzenegger was stumbling with his “live at 5” announcement of the special election — mostly pre-empted by coverage of the Michael Jackson verdict — and attempts to recast his lagging initiatives as needed to stop nonexistent tax hikes, the venerable Field Poll was asking Californians what they think of the governor.

Not much, it seems. Schwarzenegger, arguably the most popular governor in California history just six months ago, is now among the most unpopular. Only 31 percent of California adults (37 percent of registered voters) approve of him as governor. The very slight uptick in support recorded by private polling a few weeks ago was more than washed away by Schwarzenegger’s fumbled launch of the special election.

In a strategy devised by Schwarzenegger political consultant Mike Murphy and communications director Rob Stutzman, the response to the poll was — to the incredulity of some Arnold allies — to attack it. A poor idea generally, and an especially dumb idea when you have just put out your own non-credible poll, dissected here last week (see “Referendum on Arnold,” June 17–23).

The Field Poll is “balderdash,” say the Arnold aides, who continue to claim against all evidence that the governor has a 50 percent approval rating. “Let’s not forget,” declared Murphy, “that in the summer of 2003, the Field Poll predicted Cruz Bustamante would be our next governor, showing him leading the recall pack.” In reality, Arnold’s own polls showed the same thing at the time.

Arnold was elected to be the grown-up, not another cutup with nasty cracks and a short attention span. The “kindergarten cop” is viewed as no better than the unruly “kids” he was sent to the Capitol to lead. Indeed, although the Legislature as an institution again declined in public esteem, in a showdown between the Legislature and the governor, lawmakers are preferred by a clear margin of 44 percent to 32 percent. Since running against the Legislature is the cornerstone of Team Arnold’s strategy, that is, er, a problem.

Actually, there is no strategy aside from putting Arnold in front of TV cameras. That has resulted in him being wildly overexposed. Now faced with the prospect of five months of seeing his already low rating pounded into the basement, Schwarzenegger should hope his private talks with Democratic legislators reach fruition in the form of compromise measures for the November ballot. Sources close to the talks say there are Democratic compromises on the table regarding the budget, redistricting (tied to term-limits reform allowing legislators to serve 12 years in one house) and public pensions. There is little talk of the teacher-tenure measure, the only Arnold initiative showing strength in polls. They also say the governor has a penchant for repeating lines from his speeches. Hasta la vista to that, baby.