Politics & Policy

Terminated Propositions

Schwarzenegger's impending termination.

You would never know from the polling numbers that California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s people have been feeding conservative writers, publications, and websites. You also wouldn’t know why right-wing talk radio has been hyping the great, silent vote in California. It’s so hidden you’ll never find it.

The reality is that, for a long time, Schwarzenegger and his team have been on autopilot to lose California’s upcoming special election. Everyone seems to know this except those who have donated to pay for his television spots. These spots have had no significant effect on public opinion, but, as Governor Pete Wilson used to say about illegal immigrants, they just keep coming. Donors are told the problem is not the messenger or the message, but the need for more repetition. Buying this line, CEOs who would never proceed in a corporate venture without a business plan have bought into a political fantasy without a strategy.

The main reason for Schwarzenegger’s inevitable defeat is there never was any reason to have this special election. The governor began that threat, as a negotiating tool with legislators, long ago, when his popularity was higher. But he gave in to Democrats last year, so the “stick” was gone. And lacking a coherent strategy, or any strategy, he made a fool of himself by engaging in a course of action that was ridiculed in California’s nightly news. He became a caricature: an intelligent man whose handlers have systematically destroyed him.

Still, he persisted with his misplaced bravado. His vendors had wanted a special election as part of their sinecure–a permanent, financially-endowed campaign without purpose or reason. –So he threw in $6 million of his own money to pay for ads that tout ballot proposition numbers that no one knows.

His meritorious Proposition 74 to reform teacher tenure could have waited for next year’s election. Regardless, it was doomed this year because it could be, and was, easily grouped by the teachers union with his Proposition 76, a poorly-marketed measure for needed budget reform. Negotiating Hollywood-style with the teachers, Schwarzenegger destroyed his own credibility for what became 76; any ballot proposition that could be linked to it was a political goner.

Indeed, Schwarzenegger could have passed something like Proposition 76 during his political honeymoon, when there was still a sense of urgency about the state’s fiscal crisis. After all, people thought that’s why he was elected—to resolve the crisis. Instead, Schwarzenegger teamed with Democrats and squandered his political capital to persuade voters to borrow $15 billion, with no spending reform. He even said, at that time, no more borrowing, and then within months endorsed a silly ballot measure to borrow $3 billion to subsidize private, profit-seeking corporations going into the stem-cell-research business.

Then there’s Proposition 77, a reapportionment measure that, even if it passed, likely could not affect 2006 and probably could not apply to 2008, due to old population data. Last year, a popular Schwarzenegger spent big bucks and somehow didn’t gain a single legislative seat. While reapportionment was the main reason, Schwarzenegger would have gained a seat or two with better candidates, competent campaigns, and strategic polling. Backing Proposition 77 was supposed to give him an alibi for last year’s fiasco.

The real story, however, is Proposition 75, which promises so-called “paycheck protection,” which was supposed to be a sure winner. Now it’s in doubt and could well lose, because governor Schwarzenegger and his team, desperate for a single victory, slated their ballot measures with it. Predictably, doing so has not brought 75, 76, and 77 up, but rather is bringing 75 down. All of this was foreseeable.

As for Proposition 75, it is of national consequence to many in the conservative movement who are concerned about the power of public employee unions. It simply requires the approval of a member of a government union before his or her dues can be used for politics. If Proposition 75 loses, as it likely will, Governor Schwarzenegger and his tacticians will have achieved the impossible: defeating a reformist ballot measure with an appealing ballot description.

The governor and his people have taken serious and sound public-policy ideas and thrashed them through incompetence. For example, they drafted public-employee pension reform without making provisions for cop and firefighter widows and orphans.

Recently, the governor’s vendors dropped him as the centerpiece of their (that is, his) ad campaign. This is not simply late tinkering with the campaign. His numbers were awful, well before the campaign started. The problem is that his advisors have encouraged the governor to believe he’s starring in a movie about the recall. That’s a movie that has been out for a long time, and we don’t need to see it again.

Arnold Steinberg is a political strategist and analyst. He has written textbooks on politics and media.

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