Politics & Policy

Don’t Write Off The Terminator

There's opportunity in defeat.

With the defeat of all four of the propositions he endorsed, Arnold Schwarzenegger has lost the aura of golden invincibility that his decisive victory in the 2003 recall election had given him. It turns out that the Governator is only human, after all.

On the face of it, the election results are puzzling. After all, the people of California supposedly sent Schwarzenegger to Sacramento for two primary reasons: To reduce the outlandish level of state spending and to curb the power of special interests dominating the legislature, from unions to Indian tribes. The governor resorted to calling a special election only after good faith but fruitless negotiations with Democratic legislators made it clear that, otherwise, his reform agenda was doomed.

There are several explanations for the disappointing special-election results–starting with election fatigue. Tuesday was California’s fourth special election in two years. That fact disadvantaged the governor from the start, placing voter turnout–a specialty of the unions opposing him–at a premium.

The seeds of Tuesday’s disaster, however, were sown early. If there was a fatal flaw in the strategy for this special election, it was the decision to take on all the special interests–teachers, government employees, the politicians and unions generally–at once. The governor’s strategists believed that doing so would allow for a thematically coherent campaign in support of a “reform package.” In practice, however, the decision unified his opposition, whose well-funded and constant attacks combined to drive down public confidence in Schwarzenegger’s motives, leadership, and competence.

It’s always easy to criticize a failed campaign immediately after the election is over. In retrospect, however, it’s clear that the governor and his aides overestimated the extent to which Californians would “trust” him despite the predictable and passionate denunciations of his policies by sympathetic figures like nurses, teachers, and firemen. At the same time, they underestimated the extent to which all the forces opposing reform would band together and work cooperatively.

And surprisingly, given the rough, inadequate, and often unfair coverage that he’s received, the governor and his advisers even overestimated the extent to which some in the press would cover the measures fairly and thoroughly–and may have too readily dismissed as unbelievable the most ridiculous arguments being leveled at the propositions (how, exactly, would paycheck protection “silence” workers who would retain the option of having their dues spent on politics?).

Finally, the governor and his team significantly overestimated the number of Californians who would actively campaign on behalf of his reform package–a surprising mistake, given Schwarzenegger’s calculated strategy of distancing himself from the conservative true believers who do the grassroots work that’s necessary to win elections. The governor’s diligent efforts at ideological difference-splitting and bipartisanship over the past two years meant only that he was forced to fight an energized opposition with supporters who were, well, supportive–but hardly enthused.

In the end, Governor Schwarzenegger’s white-hot celebrity was unable to compensate for being outspent by 2:1 (and by 3:1 in television advertising). And even his booming voice couldn’t cut through the noise and chatter of life in a big state that’s more focused on entertainment than government.

Ultimately, this humiliating defeat may serve the governor well. He is a tenacious man, and a smart one. With a more realistic sense of his own limits, there’s no reason he can’t come back, take on the special interests one by one, and bring real reform to California.

He should start by educating Californians. As Democratic calls for tax increases grow, the governor should note that the money will, in part, be subsidizing absurdly generous pensions for state employees. And above all, Schwarzenegger must stop making deals that do nothing but avoid a standoff with the opposing party. Whether or not he wins the budget and pension negotiations with the Democrats, every confrontation is an opportunity for the governor to make his case to the voters–and a chance for voters to notice how urgent the need for change has become. With that background, it’s more likely that Californians rally to his reform cause, should he choose to take on the unions–or Democratic legislators–once again.

Yes, the Governator may have to adopt a less bold and more incremental approach–but as any Hollywood action hero knows, the only thing that matters in the end is beating the bad guys, and bringing about that happy ending.

Carol Platt Liebau is an attorney, political analyst and guest radio talk show host. Her blog may be found at www.CarolLiebau.blogspot.com.

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