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The Rough Rider and the Terminator

What two larger-than-life, radical reformers have in common.

11:00 PM, Feb 27, 2005 • By MICHAEL BRANDON MCCLELLAN
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ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER is on the verge of doing great things in California. Elected on a radical recall measure, California's governor is taking equally radical steps to mend the broken edifice of the state government. Proposing four sweeping reforms aimed at education, state pensions, the budget, and electoral districting, Schwarzenegger is taking party structures and legislators head on, using his bully pulpit to dictate the terms of the policy debate in the Golden State. More than anything, he relies on his celebrity and access to the media to shape public opinion and break the power of formidable California interests. In the past, others have employed this model to enact reforms in service of the public good; perhaps the greatest was Theodore Roosevelt.

Well before Roosevelt became a national icon as leader of the Rough Riders and the hero of San Juan Hill, he recognized how to use the media and a magnetic personality to uproot government corruption. He realized that public opinion could be harnessed to challenge even the most firmly entrenched forces of cronyism, waste, and decay.

In two posts, first serving as a Civil Service commissioner in President Benjamin Harrison's administration, and then as Police commissioner of the City of New York, Roosevelt achieved exceptional results by bringing issues directly to the people's attention. As Civil Service commissioner, Roosevelt risked being one of the most unpopular men in Washington. For five years, he energetically pursued recipients of patronage to ensure that only qualified office holders retained their federal government jobs. In spite of massive resistance by both the dispensers and recipients of patronage, Roosevelt ultimately succeeded in shaping a civil service that was populated by qualified public servants. By relentlessly publicizing his activities, Roosevelt gained the support of many hardworking Americans who had no sympathy for well-paid slackers getting a free lunch on taxpayer funds.

As a New York City Police commissioner, Roosevelt was a media darling. His antics were followed almost daily by citizens who were thrilled to see a commissioner actually putting the public interest first. Under his watch, the New York police force was significantly transformed from a municipal protection racket into a professional law enforcement body. Much of the police hierarchy and several fellow commissioners fought Roosevelt tooth and nail. Likewise, many of the saloon owners and other interests that benefited from the old system strenuously opposed his efforts. Yet, through constant and widespread publicity, his endeavors won the hearts and minds of the people of New York. His reforms were enacted and the city unquestionably benefited.

Roosevelt brought this same vitality and dedication to the public good to his gubernatorial and presidential administrations. He stood up to the massive industrial monopolies, and empowered the broad interests of the people over the narrow ends of the oligarchs. He stood up to ranching and logging interests, and fought to set aside national parks. His charisma and media savvy were his greatest weapons. He believed that democracy could overcome arrogant and entitled interests. He believed that if he could get his message to the people, they would embrace his mantle of reform. He believed that such publicity could overcome the power of the party bosses and the power of the trusts. He was correct.

This same faith in democracy appears evident in Schwarzenegger. Schwarzenegger believes that if he takes his reforms to the people as ballot initiatives, they will pass. He believes that they will pass even if he is outspent 4-to-1 by his numerous and wealthy opponents. Like Theodore Roosevelt, the governor clearly believes that the people can recognize when a decaying structure is in need of a dramatic overhaul.

It would be daring for Schwarzenegger to fight for any one of the four reform initiatives he has championed, but to fight for all four at once is Rooseveltian. Taking on the state teachers' union and pushing for state pension reform ensures that he will face vigilant opposition from organized adversaries. Putting forth a gubernatorial budget-cutting power ensures that he will face vehement opponents in the legislature. Most importantly, fighting the state's gerrymandered districting system ensures that he will enrage the political parties.

Taken together, Schwarzenegger's reforms aim to: (1) force public educators to face greater accountability; (2) alleviate the state's long-term debt burden; 3) provide an executive recourse to break a legislative deadlock and ensure that a fiscally viable budget is passed; and (4) create competitive districts in which real, two-party competition is reintroduced.