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The Termlimitnator

You think the factional fighting between Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis has gotten ugly? Just wait until January, when Sacramento opens up for business again and the bloodletting commences between Governor Schwarzenegger and his own California Republican Party.

The rumbling tectonic shifts in the national congressional makeup over the past few weeks have drowned out the less dramatic but nevertheless significant changes in our own state’s legislative leadership. To virtually no notice, the minority Republicans have selected Mike Villines of the Fresno area as their Assembly leader and Orange County’s Dick Ackerman as Senate minority leader. Villines has a record as a brass-knuckles battler against just about everything that Arnold’s new best friends — the Democrats — support. And Ackerman has already told the press that when it comes to budget cutting and opposing taxes, “We are going to be taking a much stronger position on that.” As if such a thing were possible.

Never mind all the anti-big-government harrumphing from the Republican right; the truth is that under Schwarzenegger’s rule, the California budget has grown every year — this last year a nice, plump 11 percent. Nor could Ackerman or Villines have been much cheered to hear Arnold blabbing away last Sunday on Meet the Press. His stated agenda can come only as a result of an expanded government role: extending health-care coverage to all of California’s nearly 7 million uninsured, stepping up solar-power projects and increasing efforts to curb global warming in spite of what he called the “Stone Age . . . backward” views of some leading congressional Republicans. No, he didn’t call for the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, but the governor did say he thought the moment had come for a “timeline” to get out of Iraq. And when it comes to immigration, Schwarzenegger said just a few weeks ago that anything short of comprehensive reform — including a guest-worker program — would be “crazy.”

Exactly which part of that gubernatorial agenda has anything to do with California’s Republican Party? Answer: The Governator also said he was going to do all this without raising taxes. That part the GOP is okay with.

So was Arnold just goofing about his more grandiose projects? I don’t think so. The state GOP leadership has to remember that Arnold is now termed out and his only way to go out is up — to eventually challenge Barbara Boxer for her Senate seat. Climbing that mountain requires Arnold to keep on wooing not red-meat Republicans but rather more moderate Democrats (and Independents). Nor does Arnold have any particular Republican successor for whom he wants to pave the way. Why would anybody think that a Senator Schwarzenegger would be less than comfortable working with a newly elected Governor Villaraigosa? It’s not one fillip of interest to Arnold whether it’s a Republican or a Democrat who follows him into the statehouse.

Here, then, is my prediction: Because Arnold values his own personal political legacy and trajectory more than Republican partisanship, sometime in this second term, he, and his Democratic allies, are indeed going to raise taxes. And why not? To make health care universal in California? To make us the national environmental leader? To achieve any of the monumental programs he wants attached to his name and record, Arnold will have no choice. And he’ll most likely have popular approval. Californians rarely balk at reasonable taxes when a clear, beneficial outcome is attached. Probably nothing would serve Schwarzenegger better than to confront a Republican legislative rebellion on his right flank. Staring down his own party’s antieverything troglodytes would only consolidate his dominance of the political center and, with his current outreach to his left, might even give him the majority he would need to displace Boxer.

It’s going to be a rough year or two, then, for Villines and Ackerman, as well as for the rest of the Republican legislative caucus. They have had to quietly accept and accommodate Schwarzenegger because he was their only chance of winning statewide office. And, until now, Arnold has needed at least the cover of the Republicans to move forward. Not anymore. The state Republican Party needs Arnold now a lot more than he needs it (except for maybe a punching bag).

When they reconvene after New Year’s, Sacramento’s Republican leaders will be in an odd fix, having to either grumblingly rubber-stamp an essentially Democratic packet of measures or find themselves opposing their own governor. After last year’s humbling special-election defeat, Arnold said he would never again go over the heads of the Legislature and take his pet projects directly to the popular ballot. But how about a couple of years down the road, when Republicans stand in the way of the two-thirds majority Arnold might need to fund one of his überprojects? If Schwarzenegger breaks his vow and once again goes directly for a popular vote, you can be sure that it will be to vote against his own party.


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