Davis Is to Carter... Arnold is to Reagan?


In April 1999, just after Gray Davis first took office as governor of California, I wrote a column for the California Journal, Sacramento’s version of an inside-the-Beltway monthly, that posited that the seemingly invincible Davis could become the next Jimmy Carter. Even at that early date the signs of Davis’s ultimate failure were discernible for anyone willing to look closely.

Back then, many were pumping Davis as a new Bill Clinton–a moderate-talking Democrat motivated by polling data and focus groups rather than knee-jerk liberalism. Davis had, for example, successfully stolen the Republicans’ “tough-on-crime” issue, effectively neutering Dan Lungren, Davis’s 1998 GOP opponent. However, once in office, Davis’s governing style emulated the neurotic Carter rather than the slick Clinton.

Like Carter, Davis was a micromanager of the first order. Carter wanted to control the detailed minutiae of White House operations including who his senior aides hired as secretaries and who played on the White House tennis court. Davis went over his press releases with a fine-tooth comb and argued about which office secretary should make that day’s Federal Express run.

Worse, Carter and Davis could never see the big picture. Margaret Thatcher noted that Carter “had no large vision of America’s future.” For his part, Davis, despite his long resume of state service, admitted he hadn’t thought deeply about most of his policy priorities. Early on, one Sacramento pundit observed, “Not even Gray Davis knows what the governor’s views are on many policy issues because he hasn’t decided.” Because Carter and Davis lacked an overall vision, they had no compass to guide them in dealing with major problems.

Carter muddled through the oil crisis of the 1970s displaying zero leadership and eventually giving in to despair. In my California Journal piece, I said, “Paralysis in the face of difficult policy challenges sank Carter, and it could sink Davis.” Davis would subsequently prove this observation all too prescient.

He failed to nip the electricity crisis in the bud when he had the early opportunity to do so. He had a $12 billion budget surplus at the beginning of his governorship, but failed to stop liberals in the state legislature from increasing spending when revenues started to tank. Even as the red ink rose, Davis was notoriously disengaged.

Carter and Davis also shared the annoying trait of pointing the finger at others for their troubles. Carter claimed that malaise on the home front and debacles abroad were due to forces beyond his control. Similarly, Davis blamed the Bush administration, out-of-state corporations and an assortment of bogeymen for California’s problems.

In the end, Carter and Davis failed because they had no raison d’être. Ronald Reagan was different. Ed Meese noted: “Reagan, in contrast to Carter, was a big-picture man. Carter could tick off a list of inconsequential details about some aspect or other of federal policy, but seemed to have little idea where he wanted to lead the country. Reagan did not immerse himself in details, but he had a true vision of what he wanted to accomplish, and how the various components of his policy fit together.” Although it is still too early to tell for sure, Arnold Schwarzenegger seems to be cut from the Reagan mold in some significant ways.

The governor-elect has laid out a big-picture vision that includes a Friedmanite fiscal agenda of low taxes and smaller government, plus a nuanced social agenda that appeals to moderates and that sufficiently satisfies many conservatives. Indeed, in contrast to the popular view that conservative officeholders endorsed Schwarzenegger simply to jump on a winning bandwagon, the governor-elect earned the support of key conservatives through frank discussion of ideas and philosophy. For instance, highly respected conservative Assemblyman Ray Haynes threw his critical support to Schwarzenegger after such a one-on-one dialogue.

In contrast to Davis’s inertia, Schwarzenegger, like Reagan, can’t wait to confront daunting problems, saying recently to the Sacramento press corps that he wants “action, action, action.” Also like Reagan, he is a coalition builder; surrounds himself with top-notch talent; listens to different points of view; seems willing to take the heat for tough decisions; and seems willing to delegate to others the implementation of his vision.

Democrats, who constantly underestimated Reagan, seem to be underestimating Schwarzenegger. Cranky Sen. John Vasconcellos of San Francisco calls the governor-elect a “boob,” while his ultraliberal comrade from Santa Monica, Sheila Kuehl, calls him ignorant. Reagan made Democrats regret their sneering condescension. Although his political career is just beginning, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is undoubtedly bright and thoughtful, may do the same.

Lance T. Izumi is director of education studies and senior fellow in California studies at the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy.