The Magazine

He'll Be Back

Schwarzenegger, off the ropes.

Feb 27, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 23 • By K.E. GRUBBS JR.
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THE ACCIDENT on Mandeville Canyon Road, in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles, happened more than a month ago, and if it's now barely a footnote to history, the image has nevertheless stamped itself on California.

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whose organization brought him to power in the 2003 recall, felt jilted, some even circulating a petition, itself now withdrawn, to withdraw the party's endorsement if the governor didn't sack Ms.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.