SACRAMENTO — I was listening to talk radio Wednesday. The regular programming was interrupted by live coverage of a news conference. Was it the president? No, it was Arnold Schwarzenegger and his economic summit. That’s how much clout this candidate has.
Arnold is a showman. It was a well choreographed extended photo-op. After all, his campaign team makes the trains run on time. Of course, the direction is not always clear. (Bill Simon’s people keep reminding reporters that Arnold’s senior adviser ran Richard Riordan’s silly primary campaign; it drove Riordan’s 40+-point lead into the ground, victim to Bill Simon’s come-from-nothing victory. Can Simon still hope also for Davis trashing Arnold?)
Arnold’s operatives exploit a docile press corps. Its size aims for the lowest-common denominator. Reporters are neither relevant nor persistent. They seem submissive, part of the movie set. Will they eventually resent being manipulated? Time will tell, and this campaign is the shortest ever.
But does Arnold’s campaign even need reporters? It boasts it will go directly to the people. Functional populism. Bypass Meet the Press. Do Oprah. A neat trick that may work. Unless reporters rebel by turning the screws on Arnold.
Reporters can be unfair. Some have panned Arnold’s opening 60-second introductory television spot for non-specificity. But what did they expect? It is, after all, a political spot. Except that Arnold is more powerful and more dynamic than normal candidates. He transitions easily between scenes. But is his makeup too obvious, his pitch too polished, his appearance too overpowering? When he says, “We the people,” is the script believable?
Truth is — you don’t have to do much with Arnold. He’s terrific without frills. Larger than life, he comes across in person (and in availabilities) as more authentic than in his spot. But one can’t help but recall Ronald Reagan did it differently. His spots were stark talking-head black and white. He wanted understatement.
Yesterday, there were two main props. Warren Buffett and George Shultz. Buffett, long-time backer of Democrats, is a shrewd and stingy rich man. He is a senior citizen, wise beyond his years. He loves Hilary Clinton and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Shultz apparently was an afterthought to balance Buffett. Like many pragmatic conservatives, Shultz thinks Arnold is the unique winner.
Last week, Arnold had appointed Buffett (the Oracle of Omaha) as his chief economics adviser. Buffett explained why. He vacations in California. (Barron’s Alan Abelson explained Buffett’s campaign involvement as fulfilling a childhood ambition to be in the circus.) A financial adviser in last week’s Los Angeles Times observed Buffett does nothing without making money and guessed Buffett might go long on California bonds, in effect, making a bundle after taxes are raised.
But within 24 hours of his appointment, ideologue Buffett had urged higher property taxes on homeowners. In effect, he wanted to milk the sacred Proposition 13 cow. In a normal campaign, that would have been the end for Arnold. But he deflected that question by suggesting that if Buffett mentioned Prop 13 again, he would do 500 sit-ups. Everybody laughed. Did Arnold seem to be standing up to the billionaire bully?
No reporter held Arnold’s macho feet to the fire. How could he say the problem is state overspending, when his #1 adviser Buffett says the problem is state undertaxing?
As expected, Arnold has begun to co-opt his opponents positions, such as audit of every agency of state government (Bill Simon) or special session of the legislature to reform workers compensation (Tom McClintock). With Arnold’s publicity machine and ad budget, will he own their ideas?
Either Simon or McClintock could have shared the TV limelight. Where were they?
Former (1984) Olympics chief Peter Ueberroth also was on TV Wednesday with his debut. Ueberroth’s appearance contrasted sharply with Arnold’s, so Ueberroth lost ground. Ueberroth’s delivery was slow, halting. He seemed to lack energy. A serious and competent man, Ueberroth is the only Republican candidate in the race to oppose Proposition 187, the 1994 ballot measure which cut benefits to illegal immigrations. (Proposition 187 was later overturned by the courts.) Will Ueberroth now be the first Republican to drop out?
And energy is what actress Cybill Shepherd said Gray Davis had. When he was in his 20s, she in her teens. They kissed passionately on the beach in Hawaii. Nothing more, she said. And she told reporters that Arnold had no business running, with his background. A partisan Democrat, she predicted about Arnold that “things will come out.”
And how many sit-ups has she done?
Just another day in California politics. And a good one for Arnold.
— Arnold Steinberg is a political strategist in California.