HE SAYS he has no plans to run for governor of California, yet there was actor/activist Rob Reiner at an East Los Angeles children's center recently, looking every bit the candidate as he announced a new push to expand preschool enrollment in the Golden State. "We want to build an economy. We want a better school system," Reiner declared. "We want to keep our kids out of jail."
Five days later, Reiner's idea was seconded by the Rand Corporation, which released a study claiming that universal preschool for California 4-year-olds would reap $2.62 for every single tax dollar invested through savings in special ed, fewer children held back a class, and less juvenile crime. That study was funded by the David and Lucille Packard Foundation, which for the past several years has been working with Reiner to push the preschool cause.
Does this mean that Reiner is ready to give Californians a choice the media already have dubbed "Meathead vs. Terminator"? He hasn't issued a Shermanesque "no" ("It is not in his immediate plans, but he has not ruled out a future run," a Reiner aide told the New York Times). However, such a challenge would clash with his current plan for a universal preschool ballot initiative in November 2006 (Reiner planned to go the initiative route last November, then backed off thanks in part to strong opposition by Gov. Schwarzenegger, who didn't care for Reiner's idea of raising commercial property taxes to cover the cost of expanded preschool).
Besides, there's historical precedent working against Reiner and any other Democratic challenger in 2006: Not since 1942 has a California governor failed to win a second term. (Here's further trouble for Reiner: The state hasn't had a truly bald governor since Frank Merriam was elected in 1934; California's last bearded governor was Democrat James Budd, elected in 1895).
Still, that hasn't stopped some California Democrats from buzzing about a Reiner candidacy--which says as much about the weak field of hopefuls as it does Reiner's appeal. At present, Schwarzenegger has two challengers. One, State Attorney General Bill Lockyer, is prone to verbal gaffes (he recently told reporters that the Governator has brought an "odor of Austrian politics" to Sacramento). The other contender, State Treasurer Phil Angelides, suffers from low visibility--so much so that he's already formally kicked off his candidacy. He may not be doomed, but at a recent campaign event in San Francisco fifth-grader music students serenaded Angelides with the theme from the movie Titanic.
That leaves Reiner, who also has his vulnerabilities. Should he run, he'll have to explain the shortcomings of Proposition 10, which Reiner spearheaded in November 1998 and added a 50-cents-a-pack tax on cigarettes to pay for early childhood development programs. Proposition 10 has been slow in handing out money (of the $3.4 billion that tax has generated, only $1.3 billion has been spent on providing health care to children). Even by California standards, the program is too image-conscious (the county commissions created by Prop. 10 have spent more than $164 million on PR and advertising over the past six years--by contrast, the state's Department of Social Services has spent only $2 million on its Safely Surrendered Baby campaign).
And that might put Democrats in a quandary as they search for a creative way to terminate the Governator. Common sense suggests fighting fire with fire: the only way to defeat Schwarzenegger is by convincing a Democratic celebrity to run. It's the same logic employed by the filmmaker Michael Moore, who told reporters after the presidential election that America "likes to vote for Hollywood." Moore's rationale: the left should turn to entertainers for help "because who wouldn't vote for Tom Hanks or Paul Newman or Robert Redford or Oprah?"
But does the same logic apply to California and next year's governor's race? It's not a pretty picture when one starts to consider who might show up at a casting call. Among the choices Hollywood has to offer:
Pros: A notorious tease who periodically hints at harboring political ambitions, the fictional Sen. Bullworth isn't shy about taking Schwarzenegger to the woodshed ("Arnold, be the action hero I know you can be. Be strong. Stand up and confront the wealthiest 1 percent of Californians who have benefited $12 billion a year from the Bush tax cuts. . . . It's called the have's giving a little more to the have not's"). As governor, he can pardon himself for Ishtar.
Cons: Beatty, who turned 68 this week, was first rumored to have gubernatorial ambitions as far back as 1974, so no spring chicken he; how long before Candidate Beatty--when in front of the cameras, a fabled control freak--goes to war with the political press corps over poor film stock and harsh lighting?
Pros: Like Arnold, he can play the naturalized-American/action-stud card; when it comes to bashing Bush, few do it better than the Irish-born Brosnan: "It saddens me deeply to see this country in a state of confusion and pain at the hands of a government that lies. Over the course of just four years, we have gone from being a nation loved and admired . . . to one that has put the world at large against us."
Cons: There's only one Terminator; Brosnan is one of five guys to play 007.
Pros: Real-life social activist; the Democratic trifecta of having played Jack and Bobby Kennedy and The West Wing's" President Bartlett; his real name (Ramón Estevez ) appeals to Hispanics, while his stage surname (borrowed from Bishop Fulton Sheen) could work with Catholic swing vote.
Cons: His one day in public office says it all. As honorary mayor of Malibu, Sheen issued the following decree making the area: "a nuclear-free zone, a sanctuary for [illegal] aliens and the homeless, and a protected environment for all life, wild and tame." Say goodbye to the centrist vote.
THERE IS, however, one actor who does fit the role of the Democratic Arnold, and that would be Tom Hanks. But why him? Hanks isn't a he-man or married to political royalty, but he does have the luxury of being this generation's Jimmy Stewart--an everyman who is just as comfortable doing comedy or drama and he is action or adventure.
And his body of work is the stuff of which Democratic coalitions are made. Want to bring Reagan Democrats back into the fold? Show them Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, and Apollo 13. How about reaching out to family-values types? Try Big and The Polar Express. Need to keep women in the fold? Go with Sleepless in Seattle and A League of Their Own. Philadelphia connects with the gay vote (add TV's Bosom Buddies, for undecided cross-dressers). The Green Mile, with its wrongful execution theme, plays to the anti-death penalty crowd. There's even something for Deaniacs: Cast Away can be conveniently spun into an anti-corporate screed (heartless Federal Express ruins a man's Christmas, strands him on a deserted island, and costs him the love of his life).
Not that Hanks, who turns 49 in July, seems to be in a hurry to run. Unlike Reiner, he isn't promoting a political cause. Unlike Beatty, he's not doing a media fan dance by trashing Schwarzenegger and spinning reporters. What Hanks is doing is the movie version of The Da Vinci Code. And that may be the best candidate training of all, as it gives him a chance to demonstrate a talent many Democrats lack these days: how to win over an audience, while at the same time offending Christian orthodoxy.
Bill Whalen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he follows California and national politics.