The Blog

18 Days

A look at Governor Schwarzenegger's roadmap for his first weeks in office.

12:00 PM, Nov 18, 2003 • By BILL WHALEN
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THIS IS "JFK WEEK" on The History Channel, which is not the only media outlet obsessed with the 40th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination. On Thursday, ABC News has a two-hour special analyzing the circumstances of the crime--running it against CBS's "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation." Thanks to the intrepid folks at NBC News, who have been busy collecting celebrity remembrances, we now know how Leslie Uggams felt on that fateful day in 1963.

How ironic, then, that during a week the Kennedys would rather forget, the family's most famous in-law was sworn in as the 38th governor of California. Even more ironic: for Arnold Schwarzenegger, yesterday's inaugural wasn't exactly Kennedyesque, not if it was meant to signal Camelot's Second Coming.

JFK entered office on a bitterly cold winter day; the Governator benefited from milder temperatures. There was no parade through downtown Sacramento with PT-109 replicas; the tank that Schwarzenegger owns, from his days in the Austrian army, stayed in storage. Robert Frost didn't read a poem, but Maria Shriver did recite a Maya Angelou work, prompting flashbacks to Bill Clinton's first inaugural. Jackie Kennedy preferred to keep her children out of the spotlight; Arnold and Maria's four children led a group of kids in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Nor was there a white-tie ball last night in Sacramento; no Frank Sinatra orchestrating a star-studded gala. Schwarzenegger's "rat pack," up from Los Angeles for the big day, included Rob Lowe, Tom Arnold, Jamie Lee Curtis, Linda Hamilton, Kelsey Grammer, and Vanessa Williams, who sang the national anthem.

(This just in, courtesy of a Team Transition press release: The new governor took the oath wearing a gray Prada suit, while his wife was tastefully clad in a gray Valentino skirt suit with a cream shell.)

As for the inaugural address itself, Schwarzenegger was no JFK--although, he did reference Kennedy's line about being "an idealist without illusions." He spoke for only 12 minutes (that's 4 more than Jerry Brown in 1975, but 16 less than Ronald Reagan in 1967) and didn't declare that the torch was being passed to a new generation.

BUT WHAT SCHWARZENEGGER did say was right on target. He reminded Californians, as he did throughout the recall, that he wasn't for sale. ("I enter this office beholden to no one except you, my fellow citizens. I pledge my governorship to your interests, not to special interests.") He suggested that the state could benefit from a little sweat equity. ("I learned something from all those years of training and competing . . . What I learned is that we are always stronger than we know. California is like that, too.") And the former action star called for immediate action under the Capitol dome--an executive order overturning the increase in the car tax, and a legislative special session to fix the budget, reform workers' compensation, and deny drivers' licenses for illegal immigrants.

So where to now, on the second day of the Schwarzenegger administration? Look no further than the movies. "Thirteen Days" chronicled the Kennedy brothers' handling of the Cuban missile crisis. For Schwarzenegger, the first installment of his governorship is "Eighteen Days." That's the time between now and December 5. Why that date? It's the cutoff for placing measures on California's March ballot. And that ballot factors into two of the new governor's priorities: the budget, and the drivers' license bill.

FIRST, THE DRIVERS' LICENSE BILL. Its repeal requires the votes of six Democrats in the state Senate and nine in the Assembly, assuming blanket Republican support. Schwarzenegger should get those votes without much of a struggle. That's because, if the Democrats make a stand, then odds are a referendum overturning the law will appear on the March ballot. Not only would that referendum pass, but it could alter the outcome of other measures, such as a Democratic play to lower the two-thirds requirement in the legislature to raise taxes.

The state's fiscal outlook is a tad more complicated. When California's budget was approved this summer, the projected deficit was $8 billion. That figure has since grown to $10 billion. Tack on the car-tax reduction and it projects to $14 billion. Schwarzenegger's solution? It may be a mega-bond, for the March ballot, that would borrow enough to pay off the short-term deficit but also include a cap on future spending (say, limiting higher spending to inflation and population growth). Insiders call it "the burrito bond," as it places the state's fiscal woes under one wrapper. Already, it gives some Democrats heartburn: State treasurer Phil Angelides and controller Steve Westly say they won't go along with a deficit bond unless Schwarzenegger is more specific about fiscal discipline.

Still, this likely will be another quick victory for the new governor. Why? Two reasons. Schwarzenegger already enjoys the upper hand in the budget debate as the guy sent to Sacramento to clean up the legislature's mess. Public surveys back this up, with voters supporting Arnold's policies by a 2-1 margin). Second, Democrats will recognize that floating a giant bond enables them to avoid deeper, immediate spending cuts. The loyal opposition won't roll over for Schwarzenegger (symbolically, perhaps, Democratic Senate leader John Burton gave Arnold a cigar lighter in the shape of a middle-finger salute), but it will be unusually pliant given his post-recall mandate. The governor may also try to extend the honeymoon atmosphere by delaying a fight with unions and trial lawyers over workers' compensation reform.

ALL THAT'S LEFT for Schwarzenegger until next January, when he has to submit his own budget, is finding a place to live. At present, he's renting a suite at the downtown Hyatt. Talk about a metaphor for bad government. California is one of only six states in the country without a governor's mansion. One former residence is now a museum. Another, built in the 1970s, has never been occupied. It's a white elephant that's listed for $5.9 million, and no realtor can move it. California did create a Permanent Residence Commission to find the site for a new residence near the Capitol. But that would require tearing down an existing bureaucracy--i.e. downsizing government.

Such is the new role for Arnold Schwarzenegger as. It won't always make sense. The victories won't always come easy. But he won't lack for entertainment during his next 1,000 days.

Bill Whalen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he follows California and national politics.