PERVERSE THOUGH IT MAY SOUND, the one thing that this year’s gubernatorial race has confirmed is that to become, or remain, governor of California, you have to come across as a Democrat. Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t a Democrat, of course, but he currently plays one on television, and, as in almost all of his films, while his performance isn’t really stellar, the production values may carry the day.

For any number of reasons, Democrats and such key Democratic constituencies as unions are taking advantage of Schwarzenegger’s new role to enact essentially Democratic legislation. Arnold reverses his stance on the minimum wage, so the Democrats cut a deal and the wage goes up by a buck twenty-five. Arnold moves toward mandating cleaner fuel-burning cars, which would be a real victory for the environmental movement and, more broadly, for Californians who breathe. This in turn leaves the campaign of the real Democrat in the field, Phil Angelides, gasping for oxygen — a condition that’s not terminal in itself, but that can’t continue much longer if Angelides is going to wage a plausible comeback after Labor Day.

Schwarzenegger is playing a brand of wedge-issue politics that most Republicans can’t even conceive of. He’s not, for instance, drawing law-’n’-order Dems to his column — at least, not since Angelides joined the Gov in supporting the Jessica’s Law initiative. But he is succeeding in getting Angelides’ biggest backers — unions, enviros and other progressives who see Angelides as a genuinely kindred spirit — to praise the governor for passing some of their own agenda. And he has certainly been able to work all manner of deals with Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, whose primary allegiance in all this looks to be directed not toward Angelides, whose campaign he co-chairs, or even Schwarzenegger, but his friend and mentor Antonio Villaraigosa, who would be the front-runner for governor in 2010 if Schwarzenegger is reelected this year.

Schwarzenegger, and Steve Westly before him, has been able to instill doubts in many Democrats about Angelides’ stated desire to raise taxes on the rich, which is why Angelides’ announcement of support for tax cuts for the middle class and working poor last week was both sound policy and long overdue. The best part of his program was his proposal to establish an earned-income tax credit for low-income working Californians, who are legion and will continue to be so even after the minimum-wage raise goes into effect.

The linchpin of Angelides’ program remains his proposal to restore the previous, higher tax rate on the wealthiest 1 percent of Californians, a hike that would provide roughly $3 billion in additional revenues each year for California schools and enable the state to reduce tuition rates at its colleges and universities. Beyond question, California is home to a gaggle of the megarich who could easily afford the hike. In the May revisions to the governor’s budget, revenues to the state this year were up by $4.2 billion over the January estimate. Fully $3.9 billion of the additional revenues came from the income-tax payments of the wealthiest 1,310 California families, and 50 taxpayers by themselves wrote checks to the state totaling $1 billion. Schwarzenegger, meanwhile, adamantly opposes any tax hikes on the rich, and hence has no further plans to increase education funding or cut college costs.

ANGELIDES MAY BE WONDERING, though, just when he gets the bang for his buck. “If this election is about education, the environment, making health care affordable, helping the middle class, the Schwarzenegger people are mistaken if they think the voters will pick a Republican,” says one Angelides aide. But to date, Angelides has not been successful in getting the media and voters to look at any aspect of his proposals other than the cost to taxpayers, while Schwarzenegger has been quite successful in getting voters to believe, wrongly, that Angelides will hike taxes on more than just the rich.

Not that Angelides’ plan is flawless. Raising education funding and reducing middle-class taxes as he proposes will cost more than his income-tax hike will bring in. His stop-gap solution is to close corporate-tax loopholes, but that solution itself has so many loopholes in it that his budget still doesn’t pencil out. Then again, neither does Schwarzenegger’s — and it’s Schwarzenegger, not Angelides, who is philosophically opposed to raising the revenues that could benefit middle-class Californians.

With a little more than two months to go before the election, Angelides needs to win over most of the third of Democratic voters who aren’t yet for him, and about half of the state’s independents, who tend to side more with Democrats than Republicans on most state issues. His campaign plans advertising that will tally up Arnold’s contributions from big oil and from HMOs. They will contrast the governor’s courtship of and closeness to big money with their own candidate’s support for Proposition 89, which would establish the public funding of political campaigns in California — a measure Schwarzenegger opposes. Another initiative on the November ballot that provides what they view as a helpful contrast is Proposition 87, which would levy an oil-extraction tax on the Exxons and Chevrons to fund research into alternative-energy sources. Phil is for; Arnold, against. Angelides opposes Proposition 85, which requires parental notification for minors seeking abortions; Schwarzenegger backs it.

The key, says one Angelides aide, is to remind Democrats and independents that Schwarzenegger has been a Republican before and if reelected would likely be a Republican again. “Our research shows that voters have stored in the back of their brains all the stuff that Arnold did last year [waging campaigns for his four conservative ballot measures, all of which lost]. In the front of their brain, there’s this nicer Arnold of the past few months, who comes out of this superficial media coverage. We’ve got to move this stuff from the back of their brains to the front.”

Can Phil Angelides get Californians to screw their heads on straight? Now, there’s a challenge.

LA Weekly