The Blog

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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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.