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Meatheadgate

Rob Reiner's sagging political fortunes.

Jun 5, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 36 • By BILL WHALEN
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YOU CAN NEVER BE TOO rich or too thin, the saying goes, and it certainly holds true for California's June 6 primary. State Controller Steve Westly, a former eBay executive and Democratic candidate for governor, has spent $34.5 million of his own fortune in hopes of earning the right to face Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger this fall. The other Democrat in the race, State Treasurer Phil Angelides, would certainly be out of the running by now but for a wealthy friend who spent $6 million on an "independent" expenditure to prop up his flagging campaign. As for the Governator, he's not exactly living on K rations: According to the Los Angeles Times, Team Arnold has spent nearly $145 million (including $25 million of Schwarzenegger's own money) on various campaigns over the past five years.

Meanwhile, only two initiatives will be on the ballot--an anorexic figure by California standards--and one of them now lacks its main champion. That would be Rob Reiner, the movie director and left-wing activist who is responsible for Prop. 82, which would guarantee preschool for every California 4-year-old by raising taxes on the state's top income-earners ($400,000 for individuals; $800,000 for couples). Reiner's sudden exit from the debate and the possible defeat of Prop. 82 may augur the return of a California politics that is less starstruck and less sentimental. One can hope so, at any rate.

While there's no denying the emotional tug of preschool, much about Prop. 82 defies common sense. According to various analyses of the measure, the $2.4 billion tax increase would result in only an additional 4percent of preschoolers being enrolled. Under Reiner's rules, three hours of preschool, three times a week, would cost $8,000 per child, with only 8.4 percent of the new program's funding going to high-risk children. Because the initiative requires preschool teachers to obtain a bachelor's degree, Reiner himself couldn't work in a preschool, as he attended but never graduated from UCLA.

Nor is Reiner's initiative a new approach to California policymaking. In the Golden State, the predictable liberal bromide is higher taxes for expanded government, one example being Proposition 63, approved in November 2004, which raised taxes on millionaires to expand state mental-health programs. While Reiner wants higher taxes for universal preschool, gubernatorial candidate Angelides wants to soak the rich to increase K-12 education spending. Even special interests play this game: The California Nurses Association, which fought Schwarzenegger tooth and nail in last fall's special election, has planned a November ballot initiative that would publicly finance state elections by increasing California's corporate tax.

Last November, Reiner was front and center in kicking off his initiative. The speculation then: Prop. 82 was a prequel to a run for governor, just as Schwarzenegger successfully campaigned for an after-school initiative a year before California's recall election. Reiner had momentum, as well as a fawning media. As recently as early March, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne extolled Reiner as "like Reagan, the opposite of a political dilettante." Today, a better description would be "albatross." With the primary days away, Reiner is nowhere to be seen--not on the campaign trail, nor in TV ads. If Prop. 82 fails--and the latest polls have it barely above 50 percent--it will signal an end to Reiner's future as a candidate.

So what brought about this sudden reversal of political fortune? Credit it to dubious judgment and celebrity arrogance. In November 1998, Reiner spearheaded the passage of California's Proposition 10, which imposed a 50-cents-a-pack tax on cigarettes. It also created a state government "First Five" commission, chaired by Reiner, to spend the proceeds on public-awareness campaigns for early childhood development issues. Since then, First Five has spent some $230 million on advertising and public relations, with Reiner's friends and Democratic cronies being the chief beneficiaries. That would include the Washington, D.C.-based GMMB agency, which also happens to be Reiner's political media consulting firm, as well as Los Angeles-based Rogers & Associates. The head of that firm, Ron Rogers, is the son of Henry Rogers, once described as the "father of Hollywood PR" and a friend of Carl Reiner, Rob Reiner's father.

The younger Reiner's mistake in allowing this "all in the family" approach to rewarding friends with taxpayer funds was compounded by his commission's use of those funds to advance the chairman's political agenda. While Reiner and his political team gathered signatures for Prop. 82 under the banner of "Preschool for All," First Five launched an advertising campaign to whet the public's appetite for preschool. That campaign's slogan was, oddly enough, "Preschool for All."