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Lost Action Hero

California's Schwarzenegger-backed reform propositions go down in flames.

6:45 AM, Nov 9, 2005 • By BILL WHALEN
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TWENTY-FIVE MONTHS AGO, Arnold Schwarzenegger celebrated his recall win at Los Angeles' Century Park Hotel--dubbed the "Reagan Hotel" for its past Republican victory-night parties. So, naturally, Schwarzenegger returned to the same ballroom to celebrate the end of California's special election. Right?

Well, not exactly. Schwarzenegger and his followers partied instead at the Beverly Hilton, where the Governator celebrated last November's returns. It illustrates one reason why Arnold suffered a jarring defeat in yesterday's vote, with all four of his reform initiatives soundly rejected (click here to see the latest results).

Schwarzenegger couldn't replicate last year's magic, when he convinced both Republicans and Democrats to pass what began as unpopular ballot initiatives. Try as he did to invoke the spirit of recall, in no way did yesterday's referendum match recall's giddiness. Nor did the man have much luck casting his own ballot. Schwarzenegger arrived at his polling place on Tuesday morning to discover that a county poll worker had entered the governor's name into an electronic voting touch screen two weeks earlier. The glitch was promptly fixed, sparing the Governator the indignity of having to fill out a provisional ballot.

It's a riches-to-rags story. Only a year ago, Schwarzenegger was riding high, with an approving rating above 60 percent. Today, that approval rating hovers below 40 percent. How did Arnold get to this point, where does he go from here, and is he headed for another defeat when he seeks reelection next November?

His next move is no secret. On Thursday, Schwarzenegger will hold a "Big Five" meeting in Sacramento with legislative leaders to talk common ground, beginning with a multi-billion infrastructure bond. After that, he heads off for a trade mission to China. Facing his worst reviews since Last Action Hero, battling jetlag halfway around the world will certainly be more pleasant for the governor than sitting in his office obsessing over news clips.

Once he returns to Sacramento, the Governator will then face a second media feeding frenzy: speculation over shake-ups in his administration and his agenda for 2006. For all the talk of how Schwarzenegger differs from President Bush, they have this in common: each suffered an annus horribilis in 2005.

So how did Arnold lose his groove? Watch for the following theories to be floated:

A Mismatched Set of Luggage. Schwarzenegger stumped for four initiatives, Propositions 74 through 77. While all were common-sense ideas, they didn't necessarily complement each other. Proposition 74, for example, would have changed teacher tenure rules while Prop. 77 would have stripped the legislature of its redistricting powers. That doesn't make for a seamless transition on the stump, much less in a 30-second TV spot. In recall, Arnold had a stronger nexus: California's problems were due to bad leadership (former Gov. Gray Davis) that spawned bad results (the electricity crisis; tripling the state's car tax).

The Ballad of John & Yoko--and Arnold. During the closing days of the campaign, Schwarzenegger had three different rationales for Proposition 76, which proposed a state spending cap: (1) vote for it, or expect a tax hike; (2) it's needed to keep a lid on spending; (3) pass it and spending increases will be more sensible. That's in contrast to the unions' simple yet devastating attack against Prop. 76, which claimed that it was a power grab that would decimate education funding. As a rule, Republican candidates don't fare well when they channel John and Yoko, as Schwarzenegger did during his final campaign push, telling voters, "Give reform a chance--that's all I'm saying."

The Fifth Time Wasn't the Charm. The special election marked the fifth time in three years that Schwarzenegger was either on the ballot or in an initiative tussle. Voters may have come down with a case of Arnold Fatigue. Or it could be a case of overuse of the word "reform."

When In Doubt, Blame Rove. Throughout the special election, Schwarzenegger played before hand-picked, friendly audiences. The strategy made sense in that the special election was a low-turnout affair, with Republican votes at a premium. But it opens the door to criticism that his handlers wouldn't "let Arnold be Arnold"--allowing him to be naturally charming and spontaneous, and optimistically embracing not just the right, but the center and the left.

Better Yet, Blame Alec Baldwin. Like Blake, the motivational speaker in Glengarry Glen Ross, the Governator's mantra these past two years has been "ABC" ("always be closing"). During that time, he's sold the public on a statewide after-school program, his recall candidacy, a $15 billion deficit-recovery bond, and defeating initiatives expanding Indian gaming and weakening the state's "Three Strikes Law." Critics might suggest that the special election failed because of mistakes and miscues over the past 11 months in carrying out Blake's other mantra: "AIDA" ("attention, interest, decision, action").

Death of a Salesman. Marketing is a skill Schwarzenegger possesses--and loves to tout. But that talent was overwhelmed by a bitter and distorted ad campaign waged by Californian' public-employee unions. At various times, Schwarzenegger was accused of being a liar, a power-hungry bully, no friend of firefighters / nurses / cops / teachers, and hell-bent on savaging public schools (even though California's K-12 spending is at record levels). The moral of the story: smear one man's honesty and integrity for months on television and even the best salesman becomes Willy Loman.

So does all of this mean that Schwarzenegger will be looking for new employment in Hollywood a year from now? Don't bet on it. As of Monday, spending in California's special election had surpassed $262 million. By the time all the accounting is done, that number will likely be around $300 million. Divide that by the expected 6.8 million voters and it translates to about $44 a vote. And what did that get Schwarzenegger's foes? His approval rating plummeted and 55 percent of respondents in the most recent California Field Poll say they're not inclined to support his reelection.

But the numbers change when Schwarzenegger gets an actual opponent. The same Field Poll tested the Governator versus State Treasurer Phil Angelides and State Controller Steve Westly, both announced candidates, as well as filmdom's Rob Reiner and Warren Beatty, who have flirted with the idea of running. The results:

Angelides47
Schwarzenegger41

Westly46
Schwarzenegger40

Reiner45
Schwarzenegger43

Beatty41
Schwarzenegger44

Here's one way to read those numbers: Schwarzenegger is at the same crossroads as the last California Republican governor, Pete Wilson, who in 1993 suffered a crushing special-election defeat. Like Schwarzenegger, Wilson's approval rating was firmly below 40 percent. He trailed the Democrat who would be his reelection opponent the next fall, former State Treasurer Kathleen Brown, by as much as 25 points--not the mere 6-point deficit Schwarzenegger faces.

Which suggests that if there's any doubt that the Governator can come back as year from now--well, you can guess what one-liner finishes that thought.

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