Politics & Policy

End of Davis Days

How Schwarzenegger can win.

In staging a surprise plot twist in the California-recall melodrama, Arnold Schwarzenegger showed that he still knows how to hold an audience.

Now his challenge is to cast himself as the man who can terminate Gray Davis.

In making the announcement with his pal Jay Leno, Schwarzenegger showed that he plays the Hollywood game as well as anyone ever has. When I was the press secretary for his successful initiative for after-school programs last year, I noticed that his gut instincts were often better than those of some cautious political consultants.

While most insiders, including me, thought the megastar would bow to the privacy concerns of his wife Maria Shriver, I believe he realized that if he passed up this golden opportunity, he would not be taken seriously as a potential candidate down the road. An action hero, after all, needs to be part of the action.

Now, of course, Schwarzenegger faces the much tougher terrain of a two-month sprint for the governorship, with hordes of reporters turning over rocks to try to unearth dirt about his past. Anchors and commentators wasted no time in ticking off the list of allegations, including his supposed womanizing. But Schwarzenegger shrewdly raised the sleaze issue himself on the Leno show, saying opponents would be throwing the kitchen sink at him. In fact, some media outlets received anonymous copies of the infamous Premiere magazine article, charging him with sexual improprieties, before the Tonight Show appearance. It’s worth noting that when Schwarzenegger considered a gubernatorial run last year, Davis’s camp blast-faxed the same piece to the press.

Schwarzenegger may face some built-in journalistic bias. When the media look at a Hollywood actor who doesn’t do Shakespeare, they don’t think there is a lot upstairs. If his handlers shield him too much from the political media, he’ll have trouble. After years of being coddled by the likes of Entertainment Weekly and Us magazine, he needs to engage the less-adoring mainstream press.

But here’s what many analysts are missing in evaluating whether Schwarzenegger’s next starring role will be in Sacramento:

Arnold is the rock star of this campaign. The global media coverage will be intense (as I gathered in fending off an interview request from Good Morning Norway). All these sideshow candidates, from Larry Flynt and Gary Coleman, are bit players who won’t detract from the Arnold extravaganza. But it’s important for Schwarzenegger to capture a reasonable percentage of the vote to bolster his credibility if he wins.

Inevitably, though, he will need to offer detailed policies on his plans for the economy and, most likely, take a stand on Ward Connerly’s Racial Privacy Initiative, which will also be on the October ballot. How he answers these questions could help calm queasy conservatives. But most California Republicans are hungry for a winner who can shake up Sacramento. And Schwarzenegger’s pro-choice stance will be a major asset with the state’s moderate electorate.

He didn’t provide any specifics in his first round of morning-show interviews and hasn’t answered reporters’ questions since then. The honeymoon could be over pretty soon, if the calls I’m getting from frustrated journalists are any indication.

Those who scoff he’s “just an actor” miss the point that he is a successful businessman and real estate mogul who knows how to market a product. He wasn’t just the front man for Proposition 49 last year; he helped draft the initiative and made sure any additional spending would be deferred under certain budgetary circumstances.

Most important, he has a powerful narrative behind him. Whatever you think of his politics, the man is an immigrant success story who arrived here as a penniless bodybuilder and found his slice of the American dream. And being married to a Kennedy obviously doesn’t hurt. All this will contrast rather dramatically with the career-politician dullness of the aptly named Gray Davis.

Arnold has a quick wit and tends to charm even the most-jaded reporters, some of whom, to my amazement, asked for autographs and high-fived each other during editorial-board meetings last year. One reporter was so excited at a Schwarzenegger phone message that she played it for her mother, sister, and colleagues. That may not happen in this campaign, but his sheer celebrity wattage will help him defuse some of the inevitable barrage of negative press.

He’s already turned state politics upside down. By luring a major-league Democrat — Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante — into the race, Schwarzenegger obliterated the Democratic party’s attempt at unity. Some conservatives, such as Rush Limbaugh, find Schwarzenegger too liberal for their tastes, but many California Republicans, having been shut out of power for five years, may dispense with the usual litmus tests if it means sending Davis packing. This is the moment when the party’s conservative wing must decide whether ideological compromise is worth a shot at power. Much will depend, of course, on where Schwarzengger comes down on such issues as affirmative action and tax increases.

The skepticism out there may be a blessing in disguise. There’s nothing better in politics than being underestimated. Just ask Schwarzenegger’s friend Jesse Ventura, who also shocked the establishment by wrestling his way to the governor’s mansion.

To be sure, Schwarzenegger still faces a big hurdle. He has to convince the public, and the press, that he understands California’s complicated issues, from higher education to water conservation. Schwarzenegger doesn’t need to get down in the policy weeds, but after years of portraying robots and barbarians, he does need to pass a basic test of political gravitas.

If he does that, he’ll likely be rewarded with a new role and, upon taking office the next day, a $38-billion deficit. That’s the thing about a winning campaign: You still have to deal with the pesky matter of governing.

Sheri Annis, a Washington, D.C. media consultant, worked for Schwarzenegger’s Proposition 49 campaign in 2002.


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