Too bad there’s never an egg timer around when you need one. Arnold
Schwarzenegger cooked his political future some more this week, recklessly endorsing
the anti-illegal-immigrant Minuteman Project vigilantes and helplessly watching
as a public poll showed him losing a third of his popularity in three months.
Maria Shriver was on the warpath about her husband’s downward spiral, urging
wholesale firings at the top of Team Arnold and consulting such unlikely counselors
about saving her husband’s career as Dick Morris, the Republican who engineered
Bill Clinton’s revival before becoming Fox’s favorite Clinton hater.

The wily Morris made his national reputation advising Clinton
to find his way back to the “creative center” of American politics
before Morris’ resentment of Hillary Clinton’s primus inter pares role (note
to Maria) destroyed his relationship with Bill Clinton. Unsurprisingly, Morris
thinks that Schwarzenegger needs to re-seize the center he formerly held in
this mostly blue state before he got off on his image-shredding tangent.

“I never thought anyone would compare this governor to Jesse
Ventura,” says a chastened Arnold friend.

While he postures for a special election around his shrinking
Year of Reform agenda, insiders say Schwarzenegger has said privately he never
really wanted one, but merely hoped to force Democrats to engage his issues.
Instead, his careening operation has emboldened Democrats. His own private polling
shows his centerpiece budget initiative in deep trouble even as his business
allies at Citizens To Save California struggle to qualify it for the ballot.
And top Schwarzenegger strategist Mike Murphy is reportedly saying, “I’m
not in control and haven’t been for some time.”

Schwarzenegger, according to an insider, asked to go on KFI’s
John & Ken Show just a few hours before it aired on April 28. His purpose?
To get a quick boost in the L.A. area — where his private polling has him dropping
the furthest — by criticizing the “Los Angeles, Mexico” freeway billboard
promoting Channel 62’s Spanish-language newscast. Cheap news-flow politics,
perhaps, but not unusual.

Schwarzenegger aides say he was merely responding to questions
about the Minutemen, but — having received an e-mail tip from an insider, who
described the KFI appearance as “potentially suicidal” — I heard the
governor bring up the Minutemen favorably himself before being asked about them.

So was the Minuteman move planned? Insiders have two versions:
“Spontaneous Arnold” or a decision reached after a brainstorming session
with his staff. Fingers point to Communications Director Rob Stutzman. When
former Governor Pete Wilson got freshly minted candidate Arnold in hot water
a few days after his 2003 announcement to run by revealing that he had voted
for Proposition 187 — which eliminated education and services for illegals before
being thrown out by the courts — the veteran conservative Stutzman ventured
forth to say that Schwarzenegger might well push another Prop. 187. Unbenownst
to Stutzman, Schwarzenegger had already publicly reversed his position on Prop.
187.

Stutzman did not respond to questions about the Minuteman move,
or about his plans. He is expected to leave the Governor’s Office and move to
an Arnold political committee.

The Minuteman flap totally obscured a smart move, the naming of
former Clinton appointee Alan Bersin as education secretary. Bersin replaced
former L.A. Mayor Dick Riordan, who I reported last month would be leaving.
Back then, the Governor’s Office had dismissed it as a “rumor,” but
within a few days Riordan was out, with the new story being that he had “secretly
resigned” a month earlier.

Meanwhile, Citizens To Save California is struggling to qualify
the troubled spending-control initiative. At the beginning of last week, it
was broke, needing a loan from Schwarzenegger’s California Recovery Team to
keep going. Signature gathering is behind schedule, but may barely make it,
though Schwarzenegger should hope it doesn’t. The initiative starts out with
only 43 percent support in public polling. Unlike last year, when he had the
Democratic all-stars helping with his initially fiscal initiatives, all those
folks will be campaigning against him this time.

Worse still, Schwarzenegger’s own polling shows only 29 percent
support when those surveyed are read the ballot title and summary.

The merit-pay-for-teachers initiative won’t make it; teacher tenure
will, but it’s too minor an issue to warrant a special election. As I predicted,
Schwarzenegger has announced that he will accept a reapportionment reform after
the 2010 Census. That deal, however, is not currently on the table. Now Democrats
think they can just beat him.

Democrats are worried about the so-called paycheck-protection
initiative (requiring public employees to sign off on dues used for politics),
which has enough signatures. Contrary to the official line, there is coordination
between Arnold’s official representatives and sponsor Lew Uhler. The governor
hasn’t committed to it, but it may be the only big thing on his side that can
pass. It would do little for Schwarzenegger’s central problem, his slumping
popularity. Unlike the budget and education, it is an inside-baseball “reform”
aimed at the core of the Democratic Party.

Arnold better find a way to turn down the heat — if, in fact,
he really wants to stay in the kitchen after 2006.