Unless you’re that occasional unlucky waitress or starlet within arm’s length — what’s not to like about Arnold Schwarze5negger? Even the most liberal Democrat must concede that the new governor’s quick with a joke, electric with charm, generous with cigars. He belittles his own acting in a winning, self-deprecating way and can’t bear to see disabled children without wanting to lend a hand. And his genuine celebrity status has brought needed attention and new thinking to state politics.
Yes, even Democrats could agree that Schwarzenegger’s a sharp, fun guy.
Of course, he’s also a Republican.
A real one — not just an acting Republican, reading a script at the made-for-TV Republican National Convention.
Think Pete Wilson with abs and a grin — and an occasional moderate position.
Anyone who needed a reminder only had to pay attention over the last two weeks. First, there was Schwarzenegger’s complete obeisance to the California Chamber of Commerce, which the governor declines to define as a special-interest group. The chamber named 10 pieces of legislation that it most wanted him to veto. He delivered on all 10. On other bills, there were a few bright spots for the left — for environmentalists in particular. But when it came to any matter that pitted business interests versus something else, Schwarzenegger sided with business nearly straight down the line. On the matter of health-care reform, for example, Schwarzenegger sided with drug companies and HMOs. He thus put himself decidedly in step with the Bush administration, much more so than other “moderate” governors.
That theme continued last week when Schwarzenegger unveiled his council of economic advisers. It’s a distinguished group to be sure, but one peopled mostly by the conservative Hoover Institute, the very place that Ronald Reagan turned to before the 1980 election, the same think tank where George W. Bush went for ideas on privatizing Social Security.
Schwarzenegger also has staked out conservative territory on the November ballot. He’s backed an initiative that would limit public-interest lawsuits, and he also would undo one of last year’s most significant health-care measures — all in the stated interest of making California the best place to do business.
“We had a business climate that has chased away employers and chased away jobs,” said Schwarzenegger last week to an audience headlined by the conservative economists. “And, of course, this last year we have slowly turned that around again to bring jobs and businesses back.”
Which meant, to his thinking, vetoing an increase in the minimum wage and also rejecting a bill that would forbid businesses from using offshore workers on state contracts. A true Bush Republican could hardly have done better.
So if you were a Schwarzenegger Democrat in the recall election one year ago, why was that exactly? Did you just hate Gray Davis that much?
Health activists now find themselves wishing that you’d held your nose and stayed Gray. By comparison, Davis was willing to advance health-care reform, said Beth Capell, a lobbyist for Health Access, a nonprofit coalition that advocates for quality, affordable health care. California has about 5 million uninsured residents.
Davis, for example, signed a patient bill of rights, which the Republican-controlled Congress has not come close to accomplishing for the nation as a whole. And Davis also signed landmark legislation that requires midsize and large employers to fund employee health care. For the new rules to become law, voters must pass Proposition 72, which is a referendum on these reforms. Governor Schwarzenegger opposes Proposition 72.
Unlike Schwarzenegger, Davis could have been expected to favor some plan for importing less-expensive drugs from Canada — particularly because the effort would tweak the Bush administration. But the new governor vetoed every possibility — even the idea of setting up a Web site that provided referrals to reputable Canadian pharmacies. Nor would Schwarzenegger allow the state to save money by buying meds from Canada for the prison system, for example. Even AIDS patients couldn’t save a few dollars for themselves and the state by purchasing north of the border.
“Governor Schwarzenegger did great if you’re a drug company or a hospital,” said Capell. “He’s not doing so good if you need to buy medications or if you’re a consumer.”
Schwarzenegger also vetoed a bill to make health plans offer maternity benefits and another bill that would have made it harder for hospitals to overcharge the uninsured and then send them to collection agencies over unpaid bills.
But in one sense, Schwarzenegger resembles Davis all too well. Davis took lumps over credible evidence that campaign contributions won access and may have influenced his policy. Ditto Schwarzenegger. Drug companies have contributed $337,000 to Schwarzenegger’s various political committees, according to the Santa Monica–based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.
The governor allowed some non-commercial instincts to prevail where business was not opposed. He signed a bill permitting the purchase of injection needles from pharmacies without a prescription. The key customers would include drug addicts, and that’s a good thing, say many health professionals. They favor this approach because it could limit the spread of AIDS caused by the reuse of dirty needles. Schwarzenegger also signed a bill that made domestic partners eligible for the same health benefits as spouses in traditional man-woman marriages. Both measures displeased social conservatives. For the record, Gray Davis had opposed legislation that made it legal for addicts to purchase needles.
All of which makes Schwarzenegger a moderate of a peculiar sort. On some social issues and some environmental ones, he’s actually more left than center. But on economic, taxation and consumer issues, his orientation is firmly right-wing.
There was nothing especially moderate or pro-consumer about Schwarzenegger’s vetoing the minimum-wage hike or the health-care bills opposed by Big Pharma. Nor did he show centrism by snubbing a bill that would prevent homeowner associations from seizing properties over a few dollars in unpaid dues. Or by rejecting a law requiring the disclosure of infection rates at hospitals, and by spurning a bill to notify the public when there’s a recall of spoiled meat. Or by vetoing another that would have placed limits on usurious interest rates charged by used-car dealers. By the way, Schwarzenegger campaigns have received more than $1 million from auto dealers.
The Chamber of Commerce’s Top 10 “job killers” included the used-car bill, the minimum-wage hike and the bill to make state contractors use U.S. workers. “There were no surprises in his actions,” said California Chamber president Allan Zaremberg in a release. “The governor should be applauded for his commitment to bringing employers back to our state.”
Schwarzenegger is “pretty much as advertised,” said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution. “On social issues, he tends to be progressive to left of center. On economic issues, he tends to be conservative, right of center. Guess where you end up? In the middle, a sort of centrist zero-sum game.”
But even the governor’s environmental supporters were given pause when Schwarzenegger vetoed a modest bill to limit port pollution in the L.A. basin to its current levels. Even these levels are documented as causing health ailments and death. The bill, however, could have restrained port growth. Bad for business, as the Chamber would say.
And Schwarzenegger’s support of Proposition 64 is especially troubling for progressives because the initiative would limit public-interest lawsuits. Such litigation is fundamental for environmental and consumer groups who go after major polluters and fraudulent business practices. Unscrupulous lawyers have abused these laws, but a more limited, more surgical fix was called for, said Betsy Imholz, director of Consumers Union’s West Coast office.
Overall, say critics, Schwarzenegger embraces some of the worst aspects of the Bush II Republicanism that so eagerly favors the wealthy. From the start, Schwarzenegger ruled out easing the budget crisis by increasing taxes on the wealthy — even to the levels under Republican governors such as Wilson and Ronald Reagan. “The first thing he announced [as governor] is if you were a millionaire in California you were not going to be asked for one dime of sacrifice — that was his starting mode,” said state Treasurer Phil Angelides, who is expected to run for governor against Schwarzenegger. But “if you were a community-college student, you were asked to pay more in fees.”
As for members of the Hoover-dominated economic council, “their writings, their actions, over the past 20 years could not have been clearer,” said Angelides, who called the group Team Trickle Down. “Time after time, when they have offered their economic advice, it has been to open up corporate tax loopholes and leave us with massive deficits.”
The Hoover’s Whalen dismissed Angelides’ statements as politicking. He stuck to a view of Schwarzenegger as a California-style schizophrenic centrist, although he didn’t use the word schizophrenic. “Look at the initiative process in California,” said Whalen. “We will probably pass a stem-cell initiative this fall, which is a socially progressive idea. We also passed a medical-marijuana initiative. At the same time, we passed initiatives on illegal immigration and affirmative action that are to the right. There are sort of two voices in California. Schwarzenegger did a movie called Twins, and maybe that’s the story here. He’s sort of a political twin if you will.”
Last week, Schwarzenegger himself used the same metaphor in a different, but telling, way. It happened when Schwarzenegger met with his economic council. At the gathering, right-wing economic guru Milton Friedman briefly reprised his mantra of pushing to cut taxes and shrink government services. “The basic problem is not what the government should do, but what the government should not do,” said Friedman. That, he said, is the major problem in California.
For his part, Schwarzenegger called Friedman “my great hero.” And when he put his arm around Friedman, he couldn’t help but remark on their substantial height difference, which reminded Schwarzenegger of his past starring role with the undersize Danny DeVito. Said the governor, as he embraced Friedman: “It’s Twins 2.”
But unlike the original, which played for laughs, this sequel, with Schwarzenegger and Friedman pulling the levers on California’s economy, would send Democrats running from the theater screaming.