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State of the Arnold

The Governator looks like all things to all Republicans--and trouble for Democrats.

9:20 AM, Jan 7, 2004 • By BILL WHALEN
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IF ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER hasn't turned Sacramento into a circus, then why the big top on the north lawn of the State Capitol? The outdoor tent was erected to accommodate the media crush that accompanied last night's State of the State Address--there wasn't sufficient room inside the grand old building for the 250-plus journalists who wanted to crash the party. Talk about California politics as unusual: the Governator's first appearance before the legislature, followed by wintertime spin patrol al fresco.

As for Arnold's speech, it was short--but to the point. Schwarzenegger spoke for a little more than 26 minutes, including the many pauses for applause. That's roughly half the time most California governors devote to what's supposed to be a visionary speech. He may or may not downsize government, but after this and his 15-minute inaugural address, Arnold's definitely downsized political oratory.

Something else Arnold resisted: the now-familiar practice of singling out "heroes" in the gallery. There were no teachers or entrepreneurs or servicemen returned from Iraq to tug at the heartstrings. The only spectator the governor acknowledged was California's First Lady, Maria Shriver.

As for Arnold's style--well, he was Ah-nuld: a commanding presence, with a slight trace of ham.

Schwarzenegger began his remarks with a Reaganesque joke ("I've changed my mind. I want to go back to acting"). Later on, he alluded to his pyrotechnic past: "Every governor proposes moving boxes around to reorganize government. I don't want to move the boxes around; I want to blow them up." Still later, in offering himself as California's new pitchman, Arnold reflected on some not-so-boffo box office: "I can sell tickets to my movies like 'Red Sonja' or 'Last Action Hero,' you know I can sell just about anything. California is the easiest sell I've ever had."

As for the serious stuff--governing--Schwarzenegger approached the legislature as he would the first tee at Pebble Beach. Only, instead of a driver, he went with a fairway wood that was more about accuracy and placement than distance and show. Here's the text.

FIRST, Schwarzenegger called on both parties to work with him to pass his California Recovery Plan--the $15 billion bailout bond and spending limit on the March ballot. That's smart politics. Without the plan going through, the rest of the year disintegrated into fiscal chaos. To underscore the bipartisanship, Schwarzenegger announced that a Democrat, state controller Steve Westly, would co-chair the ballot initiative.

The second portion of the address fell under the broader category of "shared pain." Schwarzenegger made clear that what he considers to be a "spending crisis" won't be solved by higher taxes ("The people of California did not elect me to destroy jobs and businesses by raising taxes. I will not make matters worse."). That pleased conservatives, as did his call for reworking the Indian tribes' gambling contract, to kick back a larger portion of their casino profits to Sacramento. The governor also said he'll save taxpayers $2 billion by "consolidating" unspecified education programs. Democrats will counter that he's cutting education spending; Arnold can rightly point out that, even with the $2 billion "consolidation," schools are still getting more money in his soon-to-be-released budget.

Schwarzenegger's third focus was California's job climate, and again he pleased his fellow Republicans. The governor dared the legislature to put a workers' compensation reform bill on his desk by March 1, otherwise he'll tackle the problem himself on the November ballot. And, in one of the better sound bites of the evening--"The executive branch of this government is a mastodon frozen in time and about as responsive"--he called for long overdue government reorganization (abolishing boards and commissions, modernizing the state's purchasing system).

So does this mean that Arnold Schwarzenegger has fooled us all along - that he's a conservative in a moderate disguise? Not exactly.

LIKE ANY PIECE OF MODERN ART, the Governator is subject to interpretation. Last night, in the course of a 26-minute speech, conservatives saw a leader who talked tough on taxes and spending and government drift. Meanwhile, moderates heard a governor who's so California-mainstream as to insist that the education and environmental portions of his address be pumped up. As for the left, they heard a Republican do the unorthodox: singing the praises of organized labor, the teachers' unions, and state employees.

So where does California go from here? The fun begins in earnest on Friday, when Schwarzenegger unveils his 2004-2005 budget proposal and the specifics of how he intends to close another $15 billion shortfall. Democrats will take exception to the governor's plan--before Tuesday night's speech, social advocates rallied at the Capitol to protest spending cuts. Nor do they like the way his budget is being rolled out. Instead of printing budget books, the state's Department of Finance will distribute the plan on computer CD-ROMs.

Once the budget plan is in play, watch for Democrats to try to talk Schwarzenegger into a tax increase, such as San Francisco assemblywoman Wilma Chan's proposal to raise rates on the state's upper brackets, or an increase in tobacco taxes.

As for Schwarzenegger, the choice is whether to spend the defining moments of 2004 as a terminator or a conciliator.

The fact that more than 250 journalists wanted to attend his address indicates that the newly elected governor is still a draw both statewide and beyond (an enthusiasm apparently not shared by C-SPAN which, instead of airing the governor's speech live, opted instead for a Donald Rumsfeld briefing and a Kevin Phillips bookstore appearance). As with workers' comp and a host of other contentious matters, Schwarzenegger could bank on his political flex appeal and go outside Sacramento to tame the Democrats, a tactic which he employed to a mild extent with his recovery plan.

Or he can play the role of conciliator, working out compromises and finding middle ground, as he did in taking a spending limit instead of a more constrictive spending cap. So far, this seems to be Arnold's preferred style--to pick his fights carefully, and show patience with the opposition Democrats. Before announcing the $2 billion education "consolidation," for example, the governor met behind closed doors with the California Teachers' Association. In exchange for the temporary spending cut, Schwarzenegger reportedly agreed not to fiddle with Proposition 98, the California's constitutional guarantee of education spending.

No Democratic leader in Sacramento can go toe-to-toe with the Governator in terms of charm and force of personality. In a post-recall climate, the Democrats no longer enjoy the moral or legislative high ground--no one's erecting statues for them, much less spin tents.

That leaves Schwarzenegger's would-be adversaries without much of a choice: either work with, or risk getting run over by him.

The man who played "Conan," it would seem, wields a double-edged sword over Sacramento.

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