Politics & Policy

Tinkertoy Terminator

No more power to the people!

It’s not nice to kick a guy when he’s down, but I’m thinking he can handle it. Arnold Schwarzenegger is falling apart like a Terminator made from Tinkertoys. About a year ago, flibbertigibbets and voluptuaries in Washington and California were convinced that Arnold could somehow intimidate the entire political process into revoking that pesky amendment that bars the foreign born from running for president (though I suppose it doesn’t bar them from running, just serving). Now Schwarzenegger is doing worse in the polls than that vaguely remembered political skid mark of the Schwarzenegger juggernaut, Gray Davis, was when he was ousted from office in a recall.

I was opposed to the recall, and I received a lot of flack for it. But more about that in a moment. First, it’s only fair to give credit where it’s due. Schwarzenegger’s a much better governor than I thought he’d be. His agenda has been ambitious, his priorities impressive and, for the most part, high-minded.

For a time he gave the Republican party a new lease on life in the richest and most populous state in the Union. His plan to yank control of congressional and state districting away from the state legislature and give it to a non-partisan panel of judges was an inspired attempt at real political reform–as opposed to Tom DeLay’s Texas redistricting, which was driven pretty much entirely by a desire to expand the GOP’s partisan advantage.

I also absolutely loved Arnold’s Republican Convention speech. By offering a robust, principled and–let’s just say it–manly defense of moderate Republicanism, Schwarzenegger did an enormous service for the Republican party by reminding millions of squishy and hard-core right-wingers alike why the GOP is their common home. It turns out that on a host of issues, RINOs aren’t really “Republicans In Name Only.”

So, good for Schwarzenegger. But I can’t stop myself from saying, “I told you so.”

I was against the recall on the grounds that the people of California elected Gray Davis and therefore they deserved to be punished. Seriously. Democracy isn’t merely about “the people” getting what they want, it’s also about the people getting what they deserve. Mobs get what they want every time. Citizens make informed choices and then live with–and learn from–the consequences. Those lessons inform how we view not merely candidates but parties and philosophies. “We gave those guys their shot and they blew it, I won’t be voting for that crowd again,” is an indispensable reaction in democratic politics.

Californians, accustomed to getting their way, demanded a “do-over” when they held their recall. The problem with do-overs, as any grade school teacher will tell you, is the moral hazard they create. They diffuse responsibility and make it that much more difficult for people to understand that this test counts and if you fail, you’ll have to work twice as hard to make up for it next time.

Like lifting the lid before the pot boils, by throwing out Davis prematurely, clear political responsibility evaporated. Schwarzenegger rode high enough in the polls long enough that now whatever problems the state has can be laid at his feet. He can’t talk about inheriting problems any more. This is a calamity, because the Democratic party has been, in effect, let off the hook for the problems it helped to create.

California is doing better now, in part because of Schwarzenegger and in part because the economy has rebounded since 2003. But it still suffers from immense structural problems that reveal themselves every time the economic high tides recede.

Those structural problems are the result of decades of liberal and Democratic mismanagement and the bungling of a state GOP that can’t break the circular formation of its firing squads. But California’s woes are also the result of the fact that Californians are Proposition-happy, believing that “the people” can vote their outrage and solve their problems that way.

It was this attitude that put Schwarzenegger in office prematurely and it is this attitude that Schwarzenegger has been trying to exploit. Incapable of working with the state legislature any longer, in January he rolled out his agenda “to the people” in four ballot initiatives, two of which have already disappeared. One, on pension reform, he had to remove himself because it was incompetently written. A second, on redistricting, was recently struck down by a judge for technical reasons.

I’m sympathetic to the substance of Schwarzenegger’s agenda. But the last thing California needs is more populism. What it needs are strong, competitive political parties, run by people who are held accountable for their actions, not overruled by special elections and referenda every time things go south.

Ultimately, the real culprits are Californians themselves. They don’t want responsible leaders so they don’t get them. Golden Staters would do well to remember their Shakespeare. The fault lies not in the movie star, dear Californians, but in yourselves.

(c) 2005 Tribune Media Services


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