AFTER A STRING OF SUCCESSES earlier this year, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is beset by political disarray and ideological confusion. While his polling numbers remain high, there are signs that this is affecting his standing and creating long-term problems for him.
In some public and private polls, Schwarzenegger has dropped 10 to 14 points in job approval among Democrats and three to seven points among independents, and those were taken before a string of vetoes of popular Democratic bills. Since then, while Republicans say he remains very strong, Democrats say their polls show problems for the governor. “He’s on the wrong side of the big things he vetoed,” says Democratic spokesman Steve Maviglio, “minimum wage, off-shoring jobs, cheaper prescription drugs, car consumers bill.” Democrats, counting on a big turnout in a presidential election year, say they don’t expect Schwarzenegger’s backing for Republican legislative candidates, several of whom have embarrassing problems, to cost them control of the Legislature.
While his senior staff spends a lot of time in meetings and elsewhere kvetching about newspaper articles and attempting to plug leaks — almost always a waste of time in politics unless you’re covering up Watergate, and look how well that went — disarray has emerged in the development of policy.
Behind the glittering façade, questions are raised by a series of unnecessary and generally unsuccessful partisan fights, a now chronic problem with the state budget, a certain tardiness in the development of some key programs, a lack of clarity about other key programs, the ongoing amusement about Schwarzenegger’s ever changing definition of what constitutes a special interest from which he won’t raise money, and a sense among Capitol lobbyists that, tough rhetoric notwithstanding, “He can be rolled,” as one puts it, by state workers and prison guards on the one hand and anti-tax Republicans on the other.
AN AUGUST MEETING of top political consultants who guided his largely mistake-free campaign and the senior staff in the Governor’s Office discussed various ups and downs of the Schwarzenegger governorship. No resolution was reached on whether the group would again hold regular conference calls and meetings, as past governors have done, and which the group had been doing, as I reported in the spring. When there are initiative campaigns being waged, the overall group works together. In between times, things are tightly controlled by the gubernatorial staff. Chief of staff Patricia Clarey, a former HMO lobbyist described by her colleagues from the Pete Wilson days as one of the more controlling personalities they have encountered, is no fan of the broader meetings and conference calls that have marked other governorships.
This came after an unnecessary partisan fight over the budget. With Schwarzenegger agreeing with Democrats on some key welfare and education issues, a sharp fight suddenly flared up over an issue inexplicable to most of the public outside “The Building,” as the Capitol is known among its cloistered cognoscenti.
Should two-thirds of the Legislature be required to approve any future raid on local government funds to bail out the state, or should it be three-fourths? Voters saw little difference, yet the governor held contentious rallies and privately even considered radio ads criticizing reluctant Democratic legislators in their home districts. All this activity generated little pressure on legislators, making Schwarzenegger look like a possible paper tiger, very popular with the public but not able to generate much pressure to move legislative votes. In the end, Democrats prevailed.
MEANWHILE, MOST OUTSIDE experts say that this year’s combination of borrowing, no new taxes and fewer cuts than touted by conservatives will leave the state with big deficits for the next few years. Says a hopeful top Republican who backs Schwarzenegger and is a realist about the budget and taxes: “He will have another chance at getting the budget done right.”
The California Performance Review, a massive and still rather amorphous undertaking that could end up as a thoughtful overhaul of governmental inefficiency or as a front for corporate special interests, is the biggest programmatic idea yet for Schwarzenegger. But it was oddly launched with a leak to the two most anti-Schwarzenegger newspapers during the recall campaign, the L.A. Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, which proceeded to sharpshoot areas of vulnerability in the 2,700-page report for days before anyone else had a copy.
Despite the fact that it is actually Schwarzenegger’s much promised budget audit, most experts don’t expect the California Performance Review to solve the budget shortfall. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst scored its savings as perhaps half those claimed in the report, and those won’t be easy to get through the Legislature.
Finance director Donna Arduin says the state needs more revenues. Not from new taxes, of course. But unless there is a much bigger than expected economic recovery — California job growth lags behind the nation’s unimpressive numbers — or Indian casinos yield amazing new revenues beyond even the administration’s claims, there won’t be many alternatives to a combination of spending cuts and temporary tax increases.
Schwarzenegger is fostering a sense of ideological confusion among many politicos by seemingly lurching between partisan Republicanism and the bipartisan ideal he has talked up since announcing his candidacy last year.
The state’s financial problems are one reason. Schwarzenegger stubbed his toe when he dropped a massive proposed Bay Area Indian casino as the legislative session was approaching its climax. This casino was a move that most any political adviser would have counseled against. When the compact for Casino San Pablo (within 15 miles of San Francisco and Oakland off one of the busiest freeways in the state) was sprung on the public, people were shocked by the prospect of having a casino larger than any in Las Vegas in the heart of one of the biggest and most traffic-ridden metro areas in the country. The problem could have been foreseen, but casino policy is in the hands of a very small group focused, perhaps, more on potential revenue and less on practical politics.
Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger, who told me before he ran that he wanted to dramatically expand renewable-energy use, noted that so far he had only “written a letter” to the Public Utilities Commission on energy (directing it to have most of the state’s power delivered under regulated long-term contracts with utilities). He shared his concerns about this back-burnered plank of his platform with this staff, and hurriedly a big solar-power plan was put together to solarize 1 million California homes. Funded by a rate surcharge, it troubled Republicans, and mischievous Democrats loaded it with an amendment requiring union labor. Coming so late and having received no public buildup, it went down to defeat.
The governor still seems to be figuring out who he is. During a weekend phone conversation before his big speech at the Republican National Convention, Schwarzenegger insisted: “I’m a bipartisan guy.” I found this striking in that the governor was the de facto keynote speaker for the Republicans, complete with full-throated endorsement of George W. Bush. “I’m not a partisan,” he said. “That’s how I want to be seen.”
In any event, Schwarzenegger’s speech was a smash hit, well crafted and compellingly delivered, which did not hurt him with independents and Democrats. Change a handful of phrases, and delete the nonsense about Richard Nixon, and it would play well at a Democratic convention. The first draft of the speech, however, was much more partisan. Schwarzenegger quickly moved to make changes.
However, if he helps George W. Bush win the pivotal state of Ohio, where he hosts an annual bodybuilding and fitness festival, for example — chief of staff Clarey touted the idea at the Republican National Convention — that bipartisan ideal will become far less than the frayed thing it is now. Bush is quite unpopular with the swing voters who delivered Schwarzenegger’s recall victory, not to mention the partisan Democrats he needs to win in the Legislature.
Democratic operatives say they expect his vetoes of popular legislation to affect his standing, especially in Assembly districts in which he has endorsed Republican candidates, some of whom have controversial backgrounds. Notably, Schwarzenegger has only endorsed Republicans, which doesn’t seem bipartisan. Included in the lot are a candidate with multiple name changes and bankruptcies for whom Schwarzenegger made a high-profile campaign visit, a former lobbyist for Enron, and another candidate with bankruptcies.
As Schwarzenegger attempts to chart his course, he seems an aficionado of “the canoe theory.” This phrase of Jerry Brown’s goes like this: “You paddle a little to the left and a little to the right, and you go right down the middle.” That’s fine for most if the boat is clearly moving forward. If not, the onlookers on the shore wonder why the boat is veering from one direction to another. One thing holding the boat back is this year’s punt on real solutions to the budget crisis.
Schwarzenegger told me last year while he was deciding to run for governor that he favors Assemblywoman Fran Pavley’s (D-Malibu) first-in-the-nation law to limit tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases. He made it a litmus test when appointing and reappointing five members to the state Air Resources Board, which has approved the implementation of that law, setting a confrontation with Detroit automakers and the Bush administration. That’s a clear direction.
But he is paddling that canoe, and looks like he’s all over the river. He’s vetoed a minimum-wage hike, approved needle exchange, vetoed the illegal-immigrant driver’s-license bill, approved health insurance for same-sex partners, come out in favor of the repeal of his friend John Burton’s (with whom he had hoped to vacation in Austria before the budget impasse) expansion of health care, approved the massive Sierra Nevada Conservancy. He’s backed an initiative to stop some private lawsuits against environmental offenders, allowed Cal-OSHA’s move against hand weeding by farm workers, vetoed bills for low-cost prescription drugs and against the offshoring of jobs but approved new protections for the oceans.
Time will tell if this is the work of a confident helmsman or a flailing oarsman.