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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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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.