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Terminator to Terminal


Let’s talk about California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. In some respects, the problems Gov. Terminator is having are the same problems that President George Bush is having: A recalcitrant legislature happily taking advantage of his extreme position on some important issues.
The two executive office-holders like to think of themselves as tough, decisive leaders. And, certainly, the Bush administration is doing a great deal to reassert the authority of the president and the office; that’s really what’s at stake in the arguments, legal and otherwise, over records and meeting agendas the White House doesn’t want to share with Congress. They don’t often use the phrase “executive privilege” but that’s what they’re asserting.
Schwarzenegger is trying something similar. He is trying to reassert the authority the governor has over state policy. That’s what shrinking commissions and advisory boards is all about; those boards are a kind of patronage system for the Democratically dominated state legislature. Creating a weaker legislature is the main reason the governor would like to see redistricting enacted: it is an attempt – perhaps the only one the state may have – to wrest power away from the state employees’ unions who, almost automatically, endorse Democrats.
With the “war” on terror and the fear that 9/11 has inspired – not to mention the fear of fear that seems to pervade American politics these days — President Bush is having much better luck asserting his authority and that of his office. I’m going to leave it to presidential scholars to decide the merits of what he’s doing. There is, however, no getting around the perception that the insular nature of this particular administration has left us with a series of unbalanced policies – not to mention the memos that support them. Some of this is starting to come home to roost in the U.S. Senate where the administration’s hand-picked Majority Leader has shown himself not up for the job. That’s creating a rare opportunity for the president’s political rivals and his foes, the Democrats.
Gov. Schwarzenegger may be trying to imitate Bush’s tough can-do approach to confronting and solving problems. It is, after all, an extension of his “Hasta La Vista, baby” Terminator image. Tough guy Arnold swept into Sacramento to clean house.
But, particularly during this past year, it seems that Gov. Terminator has turned into Gov. Terminal. He’s hitting dead end after dead end. And he’s called a special election for the fall that, if things keeps going the way they have been for the past few months, may well be the end of his political career.

The most recent salvo comes from Attorney General Bill Lockyer’s office. Lockyer is challenging an initiative on the Fall ballot to change the way in which the state’s Congressional and legislative districts are drawn. This referendum has the best chance of really creating change in California politics: An independent panel would draw the lines, not the politicians who run from those districts. And while somewhat esoteric – regular voters have a hard time figuring out why getting rid of their Congressman or legislator is a good idea – the measure stands a chance of kicking over the process by which established groups, particularly the state employee’s union – dominate fundraising and political campaign support. That’s bad – very bad – news for Democrats who rely heavily on the unions. And it’s not great news for the Republicans in the legislature: None of the above is still the fastest growing party in the state, meaning a lot of voters feel free to move back and forth between parties. Elections could – gasp! – become somewhat unpredictable for everyone. Imagine.
Apart from Lockyer’s challenge, Gov. Terminator might not get his way on this or any of the other issues on the ballot. Why? Because he’s been bullying people, specifically teachers and nurses. Why a man with a record of crude, sexually harassing behavior chose to take on professions dominated by women – often minority women – should be the topic of some Kennedy School case study. Endorsing the half-baked Minuteman patrol of the U.S.-Mexican border – thereby annoying one of his core constituencies, immigrant men – was just as dumb. These were all stupid and short-sighted ideas and Schwarzenegger – and his advisors –should have known better.
They seem to have relied on faith in Schawarznegger’s celebrity to carry the day. Well, that only went so far with those voters who like “none of the above” as their party of choice. Those voters aren’t interested in name calling and shrill politicking. If they were, they could become Democrats. No, they’re interested in the promise Schwarzengger made when he was elected: To clean up Sacramento, to put a stop to partisan politics-as-usual.
What’s next for the governor? Well, he better cut some deals and fast. Schwarzenegger is a genius – unlike the president – at coming to an agreement, declaring victory regardless of the terms, and moving on. That – and his still powerful celebrity – gives him a unique political advantage.
It is, for instance, something that George Bush can not count on; such political legerdemain escapes him. But Schwarzenegger is running out of time. He can campaign on the issues as they now stand – a shopping list of pro- or anti-union measures, budget reform along with the usual voter bait (prescription drug plans, parental permissions for abortion) but he’s got the Democratic party now focused on his agenda. Any fight is going to be expensive and bruising. For everyone. And voters may well forgive their tried and true political parties for this sort of hardball politicking; but that’s not why many of them think they elected Schwarzenegger to be governor.

Share  Posted by Chris Nolan at 12:48 PM | Permalink

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