He'll Be Back
Schwarzenegger, off the ropes.
Feb 27, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 23 • By K.E. GRUBBS JR.
Not exactly that Nick Nolte image: craggy-faced screen star, facing the booking officer's camera after a wanton drive down the Pacific Coast Highway; now looking, his hair a greasy tangle, as if he'd just come off Skid Row. But the infamous picture certainly came to mind.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, screen star turned governor of the largest state, had the night before experienced a traffic mishap. Riding his motorcycle unlicensed, his teenaged son in the sidecar, he'd encountered a Brentwood neighbor backing out of a driveway. Minor collision. If you watched Jay Leno, not to mention the nightly news, you know all about it.
But that picture is now indelible. Gone was the confident coif, the straight comb-back that projected a political rising star, the style that replaced the pre-Terminator bangs. Instead, perhaps owing to a fast change after a night in the emergency room, the strands were spikier, uncontrolled. The morning press conference was meant to assure the state's continuing calm. The puffed upper lip, arced by fifteen stitches, instead suggested the downward spiral of a man who'd lost control.
A Pat Robertson explanation even suggested itself: divine retribution for all the unseemly smooches? Had the governor abandoned the damsel he'd brought to the party? Had he forsaken the GOP at the punchbowl as a Democratic floozy flounced by?
We know the tale: Routed in November when voters rejected the four initiatives of his special-election reform package, Gov. Schwarzenegger clawed his way abjectly back through the dust. He'd been wrong, he told voters even before the election, vowing to move back to the center. To do that, he chose Susan Kennedy, cabinet secretary for his predecessor and a left-leaning Democrat, to run his office.
When I wrote in these pages about the subsequent outrage ("Arnold Agonistes," December 26, 2005), it hadn't dissipated. Republicans, whose organization brought him to power in the 2003 recall, felt jilted, some even circulating a petition, itself now withdrawn, to withdraw the party's endorsement if the governor didn't sack Ms. Kennedy forthwith.
The next scenes of this action flick give ambiguous encouragement to the governor. A capsule comeback chronology:
* In early January, Gov. Schwarzenegger, in his State of the State speech, made conciliatory gestures to both parties. He singled out for praise both Republican senator Tom McClintock, the conservative hero, and Democratic senator Martha Escutia, a liberal advocate of school spending. He seemed buoyed, the November defeat and the Kennedy fallout behind him.
* Days later, he unveiled his 2006-07 budget, all $125.6 billion of it, prompting the Democrat-friendly Sacramento Bee to complain he'd lost his chance "to buck the autopilot spending," mandated by an accumulation of previous ballot propositions, on schools, transportation, and even stem-cell research. There remains a $6 billion deficit to close in 2007-08.
* Defying the eternal wisdom of his onetime economic mentor, Nobelist Milton Friedman, the governor signed on to a one-dollar minimum wage increase, thereby inviting a rise in unemployed youths and untrained workers.
* Apparently deciding his legacy would hinge on relief for stressed motorists and Katrina-anxious flood-plain dwellers, he called for $68 billion in bonded indebtedness for road-building and dam-strengthening. Big spending was back.
* As number-crunchers across the spectrum complained, the public seemed to like the governor's bipartisan tone. In late January, the Public Policy Institute of California released its survey numbers. Schwarzenegger's approval among likely voters had jumped from 38 percent in October to 45 percent in January. Maybe they warmed to the battered look.
So Schwarzenegger took heart and felt emboldened to refuse to fire Kennedy, a nonstarter anyway. At a Sacramento Press Club luncheon, he continued to develop an apologia he gives no sign of dropping. Throughout his short political career, he bragged, whether it was plumping for an auto-spend after-school program or campaigning for his reforms, he had always surrounded himself with both Democrats and Republicans. He'd go where he wanted to go--strike up the Mamas and the Papas--with whomever he wanted to do it with.
Evenhanded as that was supposed to be, Republicans took it as defiance. It was they who had accepted his date to the recall dance (or seduced him into inviting them--whichever), they who selected him to punch out the cloddish Gov. Gray Davis. Small wonder they felt slighted.
He deepened the apologetic theme he'd introduced days before his reform package lost last November, admitting to the assembled media that he was still undergoing "on-the-job training." Memo to Steve Westly and Phil Angelides, prospective Democratic challengers both: Get that footage, replay that soundbite.
Steve Schmidt, a 35-year-old White House operative added to the Schwarzenegger team, is hailed as a political rescuer par excellence. Schmidt worked on President Bush's 2004 rapid-response operation aimed at the Kerry campaign, landing an administration job with Vice President Cheney as director of press relations. (Bet he's missed now.) Schmidt's new job: Get Schwarzenegger reelected next November.
So with Kennedy running the governor's office and Schmidt noodling the message, California's purple voters (blue for the coastal cities, red for the state's interior) get to observe a theoretical spectacle of bipartisanship perfected. The imperfections, however, are not far hidden.
One irritant to the governor's Republican critics: Kennedy is being paid, in addition to her $131,000 state salary, $7,500 a month from the campaign. Even more troubling, Kennedy was paid, while a member of the Public Utilities Commission, more than $100,000 from a Los Angeles law firm for work she did consulting for a real estate company engaged in a plan to sell water stored in the Mojave Desert to Southern California's Metropolitan Water District. Did someone say "alkaline"? How about "brackish"?
Republican legislators, not happy with the governor's personnel choices or the gargantuan size of his budget, have begun to work out their deals. One Inland Empire senator expects a streamlining of environmental regulations as Schwarzenegger completes the most massive road-building project since Democratic governor Pat Brown connected the state in the early sixties. It was Brown's son Jerry, upon his own inauguration in 1975, who immediately called a halt to freeway-building. Even with two Republican governors since, that's three decades without serious road-building. But Schwarzenegger, the third, hasn't found any spending cuts to off-set his fresh infrastructure plan.
Certainly, Republican activists are not easily placated. They point to a bevy of Schwarzenegger environmental appointments that seem to come from the mold of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (no relation to Susan, but a cousin of the governor's famous wife), and indeed something about subsidizing solar power seems to have gone to the governor's head.
Fueling Republican restiveness is the calculation that, since Kennedy's appointment, Schwarzenegger has committed Californians to paying $16 billion in new taxes in the form of electricity fees, water bonds, and a mobilization to end global warming in the Golden State. They wait for Schmidt to come up with a semantic escape, presumably the customary assurance that "fees" are not taxes, and they're ready to ridicule whatever he comes up with.
The state GOP convention, scheduled to convene on February 24-26 in San Jose, was expected to be determinative, as disaffected activists try to debate a package of resolutions. Among the disciplinary measures: The governor must drop his plan to increase the minimum wage, that intention already seen as a broken promise; he must appoint more Republican judges and stop naming Democrats to the bench; and he's got to cut his budget by $7.5 billion.
The hottest resolution, put up by former party chairman Mike Schroeder and threatening the withdrawal of the party's gubernatorial endorsement, would have called for the sacking of Susan Kennedy. Eleventh-hour maneuvering by McClintock, now running for lieutenant governor, has convinced the Republican right to suspend such demands.
Fire doused? Fence mended?
Those metaphors seem inapposite. As delegates leave San Jose, their motivational level flat, the one that sticks is that freaky photo taken right after the motorcycle smash-up. Last November's special election turned out weak numbers of Republican voters in the essential counties: Orange, San Diego, and Riverside. The Schmidt-Kennedy magic may be just enough, or not enough, all depending on how smart the Democrats are.
Assembly speaker Fabian Nuñez, a Democrat, already (and implausibly) has tried to outflank Schwarzenegger on the right by declaring the bond plan too expensive. The villainous Sen. Don Perata, meanwhile, has mounted a television campaign on behalf of his alternative transportation plan, the theme of which is public transportation (never popular in motor-happy suburbia). And the union-heavy party machinery looks poised to nominate Phil Angelides, the hack treasury secretary, over Steve Westly, the business-friendly state controller.
So The Governator might squeak back in, even with the recent discovery of an empty war chest. The betting is he'll make it, pleasing few Californians and certainly not restoring conservative governance to the Golden State.
K.E. Grubbs Jr. is a Sacramento-based writer and editor.