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Who Is the Real Arnold Schwarzenegger?

9 minute read
Sonja Steptoe/Sacramento

During a tour of communities devastated by the rainstorms that hit California last week, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger stood atop a battered levee reinforced by stacks of sandbags and previewed his next crusade. He was preparing to ask the legislature to support a 10-year, $222 billion proposal to fortify eroding flood banks and other decrepit infrastructure. Surveying the swollen canal nearby, Schwarzenegger closed by saying, “I hope we can move forward with [the plan]. It’s just the sandbags protecting us from a disaster here.”

Schwarzenegger is crossing his fingers that the massive public-works plan will help rescue him from political disaster. His approval ratings are well below 40%, his re-election day is just 10 months away, and he’s still recovering from the defeat of his pet ballot initiatives by voters who thought he had become too conservative and combative during the special election last November. The Republican Governor is trying to rally by championing levee restoration and a host of other largely nonpartisan programs in a concerted attempt to recast himself as the consensus-building centrist he promised to be when he was elected two years ago. To that end he has added more moderates to his inner circle—most notably staff chief Susan Kennedy, an iconoclastic Democrat who supports abortion rights but shares the Governor’s hostility to government regulation. And he has demoted partisans like liberal environmental activist Terry Tamminen and Kennedy’s predecessor, conservative Republican Patricia Clarey. He is courting—or, some suggest, co-opting— Democrats on pet issues like raising the minimum wage and freezing tuition at state colleges. But at the same time, he followed the politically safe precedent—no California Governor had commuted a death sentence in 38 years—and denied clemency to death-row inmate Stanley (Tookie) Williams.

Schwarzenegger 3.0 was on full display during his State of the State address last week. Gone was the man who in last year’s speech talked of fighting special interests, deplored the “broken” budget process, called the education system a “disaster” and declared that the state-employees pension system was “out of control.” In his place, legislators heard a chastened Governor offering a plan to please any populist—or teacher, bond salesman, union member, hourly worker, college student or construction-company owner. “The people, who always have the last word, sent a clear message—cut the warfare, cool the rhetoric, find common ground and fix the problems together,” Schwarzenegger said. “So to my fellow Californians, I say—message received.” Among other things, he proposes to repay elementary and secondary schools the $1.67 billion the state previously borrowed to close the budget gap. He would finance his public-works projects not with higher taxes but with a combination of bond sales and freeway tolls. Most startling, Schwarzenegger conferred so frequently on those ideas with Democratic legislative leaders that “Democrats all but wrote the speech,” says Fabian Núñez, the Democratic assembly speaker who has shared cigars, wine and espresso with the Governor during their confabs.

In theory, Schwarzenegger’s strategy makes perfect sense. California is more politically purple than blue nowadays. The latest registration statistics show that although 43% of the state’s 15.9 million voters are Democrats and 35% are Republicans, the number of independents is up to 18% and growing fast, says Mark Baldassare of the Public Policy Institute of California. Given the Democrats’ hold on the legislature, Schwarzenegger can’t accomplish much without their help. But he can’t get re-elected without the support of Republicans. “Moving to the center is the only thing he can do because moderates and swing voters decide elections here,” says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a senior scholar at U.S.C.

In practice, however, by trying to be all things to all factions, Schwarzenegger has pleased very few. His latest incarnation has provoked mostly suspicion from the left and talk of revolt from the right. In a poll released last week by the independent Public Policy Institute of California, just 32% of adults said they approve of his leadership. Although the Governor’s reincarnation is just beginning, many Democrats believe that voters have already seen enough. “One year he’s a centrist. The next year he’s a conservative. The next year he wants to be a liberal,” says Roger Salazar, a Democratic strategist advising state controller Steve Westly, who’s running for Governor. “This guy has no political soul.”

Schwarzenegger insists there have been no shifts in his core beliefs. “Anyone who says I’m changing positions is totally wrong,” he said at the disaster site last week. He argues that he’s a pragmatist above all. He has embraced the minimum-wage hike and the tuition freeze, he says, because the state can afford them now. But skeptics detect a flight to safety after a serious setback. “During his first year in Sacramento, he cut a number of deals, giving the appearance that he was able to work with the legislature and all the constituencies and that he was trying to govern,” says Leon Panetta, a former Clinton White House chief of staff. “But when he went to war with the Democrats and the unions the following year, there was frustration that we were back to confrontational politics. Arnold needs to get back to where he was in the first year.”

The complication for Schwarzenegger is that many of the state capital’s inhabitants are addicted to partisan warfare. And trying to simultaneously keep his base happy and build bridges across the aisle is proving arduous—as shown by the reaction to his hiring of Kennedy, an openly gay former Democratic Party executive and deputy staff chief for Governor Gray Davis. Schwarzenegger said Kennedy will help him work with Democrats to carry out his plans. But rather than viewing it as the practical move the Governor said it was, or drawing comfort from Kennedy’s pro-business voting record while serving on the state utilities commission since 2003, both moderate and conservative Republicans saw only blue. State G.O.P. leaders publicly fretted that she might divulge election strategy to Democrats. Others took it as a slap. “He’s just told a lot of people who spent their lives fighting her that their work is meaningless,” says Ray Haynes, one of about 20 Republican assemblymen who met with the Governor to express their displeasure. Haynes suggested a number of conservative causes Schwarzenegger could champion, such as fighting illegal immigration and keeping his no-new-taxes campaign pledge. “The secret in politics is to leave the dance with those that brung you, and I can guarantee that none of the Democrats want to see him come back,” he says. “He’s got to assess who’s more critical to his success.”

Activists in the party’s right wing, long suspicious that Schwarzenegger was a liberal in conservative’s clothes, are not waiting for the loyalty-test results. The Campaign for Children and Families is asking him to leave the Republican Party. A leading grass-roots group, the California Republican Assembly, is lobbying to rescind the G.O.P.’s preprimary endorsement of Schwarzenegger. Those activists have collected more than 10,000 signatures on an online petition urging The Passion of the Christ director Mel Gibson, a conservative Catholic, to run against Schwarzenegger for Governor. “His reaction to the special election was to raise a white flag in surrender to the liberals,” complains Mike Spence, who heads the assembly. “Schwarzenegger’s going to have to give conservatives a reason to vote for him. Otherwise, we won’t vote at all.”

A Gibson candidacy is a long shot, not least because the movie star has not shown any interest in Schwarzenegger’s job. But Spence thinks conservatives may have another way to show their displeasure—by backing Jim Gilchrist, the founder of the Minuteman Project, which is agitating against illegal immigrants, and a possible independent candidate in the general election. As it stands, with a Democratic challenger expected to get full support from the party’s re-energized base, strategists say Schwarzenegger will need to draw a big chunk of votes from conservative Republicans, who make up about 67% of the Republican Party’s 5.5 million registered voters, to keep his job.

As if all that were not enough, now that the once powerful Governor is fighting for his political life, there’s little incentive for Democrats to go along with his agenda—and help him improve his fortunes in the process. Indeed, Democrats aren’t completely in synch with his new proposals and intend to press for things still on their wish list, such as an inflation provision in the minimum-wage hike, the right to buy cheaper prescription drugs from abroad and higher spending on education and health care for the poor. “We should be on the offensive and not reacting to Arnold’s new script, which is designed to save his own job,” says Phil Angelides, the state treasurer and another gubernatorial candidate.

But Schwarzenegger has shown a talent for speaking directly to voters over the perpetual partisan hum and appealing to their frustration about California’s gerrymandered political system, which only two years ago returned to power every single state legislator. When those same politicians balked at his early efforts to balance the $80 billion budget, he put on a golf shirt and a leather jacket and made his populist case in California’s open-air shopping malls. There was some of that same Reaganesque flair in his State of the State speech last week, as he invoked the tradition of Californians dreaming big. Now in this election year, his opponents must be worried that if they break the olive branches Schwarzenegger is extending, he won’t hesitate to blame them for ruining the state’s dreamy horizons.

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