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The Governator V

Arnold Schwarzenegger goes to the people in his most exciting sequel yet!

12:00 AM, Oct 7, 2005 • By BILL WHALEN
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IF THERE IS A CONSTANT in Arnold Schwarzenegger's overlapping careers as film and political star, it would be his ability to choose the right foil to play the bad guy.

On the big screen, Schwarzenegger battled--and could always be counted on defeating--a steady supply of terrorists, thugs, and cyborgs. On the campaign trail, the Governator has proven as deft at role-playing, easily besting Indian gaming tribes and liberals who wanted to soften California's "Three Strikes law," not to mention former Gov. Gray Davis and the Democratic-controlled state legislature, whose combined ineptness opened the door to Arnold's recall run back in October 2003.

But that was then and this is now.

With only a month to spare before the November 8 special election in California, Schwarzenegger for once finds himself on the short end of a casting call. What began as a showdown with the legislature over policy impasses--education, budget, and redistricting reform--instead morphed into an all-out character assault on the Governator by liberal unions whose purse-strings control California's legislators.

Give the unions credit: They found a way to rewrite Arnold's script. Instead of the legislature playing the role of the heavy, Schwarzenegger for months now has been the butt of TV ads featuring police, firefighters, teachers, nurses, and in-home care providers. Unless Arnold changes that dynamic--breaking through the union's "human shield" and returning the election to a referendum on a dysfunctional legislature--he may be headed for a fall next month.

Schwarzenegger's decision to call a special election to push his reform agenda--that agenda includes Propositions 74 (teacher tenure), 75 (paycheck protection), 76 (budget reform) and 77 (redistricting)--is not unusual. In fact, California's initiative process traces back to 1911, when then-Gov. Hiram Johnson called a special election to vote on amending the state constitution to adopt the initiative, referendum, and recall functions.

What is unusual is Schwarzenegger's high-stakes gamble. Conventional wisdom says that politicians have to adapt to survive--George W. Bush is a compassionate conservative in 2000; four years later, he's a tough-as-nails wartime commander. Next month's special election is the fifth time in three years time that Schwarzenegger has campaigned statewide either for himself or his agenda. And it's been pretty much the same formula each time: the Governator working the suburban shopping malls and car dealerships; Arnold starring in his own TV ads as a populist/outsider. In Hollywood, franchises that carry a Roman numeral V don't generate much buzz; this special election tests that theory.

Here are some other factors to consider in the weeks ahead:

(1) More Arnold-Friendly Voters? According to a survey by the San Francisco-based Public Policy Institute of California, only 40 percent of respondents believe the special election is a good idea while 53 percent beg to differ and support it. That was before Schwarzenegger began his media campaign. Meanwhile, there may be a quiet shift in the voting landscape that works to Arnold's advantage. The latest party registration figures for California show a continued decline in party registration. The number of registered Democrats is now 42.8 percent, down from 44.1 percent; registered Republicans are now 34.8 percent, down from 35.3 percent. Independents now number 18 percent, up from 15.7 percent. Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Weintruab, who writes one of the best blogs on California politics, calculates that since the October 2003 recall, the state has 166,000 more Democrats, but 220,000 more Republicans and nearly 500,000 more independents. If Schwarzenegger can find those 720,000 voters and get them interested in his agenda, his chances vastly improve.

(2) Money--Quality or Quantity? Schwarzenegger has amassed $28 million to promote his four initiatives. Meanwhile, the public employees' unions will spend anywhere from $80 million to $130 million (add in the $80 million budgeted by drug companies to kill Proposition 79, a drug-benefit plan, and total spending for the special election will surpass $200 million, proving that the new gold rush in California is local TV stations selling air time). Think of it as saturation bombing versus one big blast. The unions have run TV spots against Schwarzenegger through the summer and fall featuring one of two themes: the governor doesn't like teachers and firefighters ("people like us," the ads refrain); he owes public schools an extra $4 billion from budget promises not kept. Over at Team Arnold, lead strategist Mike Murphy's plan is to spend a bundle at the end of the campaign, what he calls dropping "a grand piano" on the opposition. Why the gamble? Murphy and company are banking on Schwarzenegger's skills as a strong closer, and that the public still sees Arnold as a positive outsider, not a dishonest or non-empathetic politician.

(3) Start Low, Finish High. The history of California initiatives is one of measures starting high and finishing low. Schwarzenegger broke that rule last year when his Proposition 57, a $15 billion "recovery bond" to paper over the state's budget debt, finished with 63 percent approval after starting out with only half that support. Recent polling numbers indicates that Arnold may pull another rabbit out of his hat.

Here's what the governor's internal polling shows:

Prop. 7455% Yes44% NoProp. 7560% Yes37% NoProp. 7658% Yes36% NoProp. 7759% Yes36% No

Here's a survey, done this week, by KABC-TV in Los Angeles and KPIX-TV in San Francisco

Prop. 7455% Yes44% NoProp. 7560% Yes37% NoProp. 7658% Yes36% NoProp. 7759% Yes36% No

(4) Preview of Coming Attractions. To boost Republican morale and assure his donor base that's he's in the game to stay, Schwarzenegger announced last month that he'll run for reelection in 2006. Thus the special election allows Democrats to road-test themes for next year. State Treasurer Phil Angelides calls Arnold a "Bush Republican" who's promoting a conservative agenda. Angelides also has imported a red-ink theme from congressional Democrats, pointing out that the state's annual debt service of $3.5 billion is more than what's spent on the University of California system.

If that's the best Democrats can muster, then they're in trouble. California's credit rating has improved under Schwarzenegger; Angelides will have to explain why the legislature likes to pass debt-enhancing bonds. As for being a closet conservative, Democrats will be hard-pressed why the same governor who campaigned for Bush and vetoed a gay-marriage bill also has signed laws extending benefits for same-sex couples, supports stem-cell research, and advocates curbing greenhouse emissions beyond the Kyoto treaty. The best approach may be that of Warren Beatty, who accuses Schwarzenegger of governing "by show, by spin, by cosmetics and photos ops," and then disappears back to the seclusion of Mulholland Drive.

Democrats aren't desperate, but there is at least one desperate move afoot. A Berkeley physician has started circulating a petition to recall Schwarzenegger. If 1 million valid signatures are collected over a 160-day period by the movement, then the idea would be to slip a recall vote into the June 2006 primary. It would be an extraordinary gesture--attempting to recall a governor five months before his term ends. Then again, ordinary politics ended the moment Arnold Schwarzenegger took center stage in California politics.

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