Bipartisanship was “the wave of the future” last fall. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and first lady Maria Shriver talked it up at private dinner parties. In conversations, the governor took pains to learn if he was “coming off as a bipartisan guy.” It was a staple of his speeches. That was then.

After a promising, though modest, start last year, Schwarzenegger has embraced a hastily developed, hazily defined, harshly partisan agenda that promises to roil the waters of California politics all year long. Notwithstanding the “theatrics” — Schwarzenegger’s own term — of seizing the national stage in this election off-year, the program is less than it appeared, its prospects problematic.

What happened?

Top Republicans and Arnistas agree that last fall’s election results were key. Schwarzenegger traveled to Ohio, a cornerstone state in the closely fought presidential election. Wisely, Schwarzenegger eschewed credit for Bush’s narrow victory, but took credit for several California ballot initiatives.

He was also fast to elude any blame for major defeats in state legislative races. Although he had worked closely with Democrats, Schwarzenegger was persuaded by Chief of Staff Pat Clarey, Communications Director Rob Stutzman, Legislative Secretary Richard Costigan and Political Consultant Mike Murphy to try to win Democratic seats in districts he carried in the 2003 recall. All 11 of the governor-backed candidates in those districts lost. Privately, he didn’t like losing and spun the results. He blamed a pro-incumbent redistricting deal struck by Democrats and Republicans.

Actually, his candidates were poorly vetted. Several had embarrassing personal scandals. Most disagreed with his moderate Republicanism. And Schwarzenegger’s decision, urged by the Republicans on his staff, not to endorse even one Democratic candidate was bad PR for a “bipartisan guy.”

Schwarzenegger cast about for a new agenda, something big. But what? For months, say insiders, he made little progress on the new agenda. Schwarzenegger wasn’t sure what he wanted. But “it had to be big and reform,” says an Arnista.

After the November election, reapportionment emerged as a leading element explaining away the defeats, and partisan hostilities increased. Emboldened by their success in the legislative races, and increasingly miffed by the governor’s alternately cajoling and belittling them — they were cigar buddies one day, “girlie men” and “losers” the next — Democrats, notably Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez, became annoying to Schwarzenegger, shooting off an endless barrage of sniping statements.

Team Arnold seemed to forget that his successes had been mostly bipartisan. Even his dramatic defeat of the three-strikes sentencing reform depended on support from Jerry Brown, whose prerecorded phone calls went to millions of Democrats, and Gray Davis.

Schwarzenegger has not commented on his shift. Asked for the official version of how the new Schwarzenegger agenda emerged, gubernatorial Press Secretary Margita Thompson said she would have to look into it.

Top Republicans say that Schwarzenegger and his sometimes contentious cast of aides and advisers wanted to find a solution to the state’s chronic budget crisis that moved the issue away from nasty choices over spending and taxes, which drain politicians’ popularity, into the realm of a voter-approved formula. “That will shield Arnold,” said one. Hence an initiative on spending controls, details TBA. But what else?

Despite months of lead time, the process had moved well into December. Veteran advisers noted uneasily that a State of the State address should be nearly developed.

With the public-pension system viewed in the press as out of control, pension reform entered the mix. Team Arnold agreed that a shift to a 401(k) system seemed safe, since only new state employees would be affected.

Schwarzenegger wanted dramatic education reforms. Merit pay for teachers performed well in his public-opinion research, so it went into the issue basket.

With a plan at last, the governor unveiled it to great fanfare in January, and it met immediate problems. Although the measures appeared to address areas of legitimate concern — budgets, public pensions, education, and a redistricting tradition where politicians pick their voters — the solutions seemed undercooked. Democrats decided not to play along.

Even as the Schwarzenegger initiatives started coming into focus at last, their prospects remained problematic. The latest Schwarzenegger spending-control measure is more moderate than his robo-cut proposals and the hard spending cap pushed by conservatives in and around the administration. “I believe in having the governor make spending choices,” says one top Arnold aide.

But it would alter Proposition 98, so the powerful California Teachers Association will fight hard against it, and many conservatives are unhappy with it. And Republican and Democratic lobbyists complain about Sinclair Paint, the 1997 state Supreme Court decision that state and local government fees may be imposed by majority rather than two-thirds vote if the revenue is used to correct health problems. Former state environmental secretary turned Schwarzenegger Cabinet secretary Terry Tamminen succeeded in keeping the repeal of this out of the current spending initiative, to the dismay of lobbyists expected to fund it. Merit pay for teachers is troublesome, too. Now his team recognizes that even if it works out merit pay and goes with another initiative merely requiring a few more years of service before gaining tenure, it is “hardly a silver bullet,” as one insider puts it. “[Education Secretary] Dick Riordan is a nice guy, but we are nowhere,” says an insider. “We need a broader reform plan to make the initiative play credible.”

To address spiraling public-pension costs, Schwarzenegger and company devised an initiative to put new public employees into private sector–style 401(k) plans. But another insider notes, “It wouldn’t really save any money for 10 years.” Public-union advocates say it wouldn’t save money at all.

Meanwhile, a potentially fatal political flaw has some around the governor very worried about how it will play out in a media campaign. Death and disability benefits for the surviving spouses and orphans of police and firefighters killed in the line of duty could be cut off by the initiative, forcing the governor and his allies to seek separate legislation to shore up the benefits. Cops and firefighters opposed to any pension change threaten to dog Schwarzenegger appearances.

Then there is reapportionment. Even some on the Arnold team say it is too late to get lines redrawn for the 2006 elections. That means 2008 at the earliest, a process already opposed by congressional Republicans and the White House.

All European gourmets know what can happen when a soufflé is undercooked. The first term of Arnold Schwarzenegger is in danger of turning into the third term of Pete Wilson. That’s not what most Californians thought they were getting in the recall.

LA Weekly