What will he do now?

October 10, 2003|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - In the last scene of the movie The Candidate, a stunned Robert Redford, having run an image campaign with no appreciable political experience and having just been informed he had won, asks: "What do we do now?"

After fellow actor Arnold Schwarzenegger's election as governor of California in the recall of the hapless Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, the same response from him would seem appropriate.

Some of the things he has said he will do, such as wrestling down a state budget that is at least $8 billion in the red while rolling back Mr. Davis' onerous tripling of California's car license fee, will require more magic than Mr. Schwarzenegger managed to weave in gaining the governor's chair. Cutting the license fee would deprive the state of at least $4 billion.

Beyond such generalized notions, the new custodian of the world's fifth-largest economy navigated the recall election without offering any concrete numbers for the state budget he must propose to the Democratic-controlled legislature in January.

He ran a campaign engineered in part by shrewd national political consultant Mike Murphy, deservedly known for clever ads, who never tried to sell his candidate as much more than a popular movie star who was not Gray Davis.

Not being Gray Davis was the critical point, the incumbent being one of the least charismatic, least loved, yet elected politicians to come down the pike anywhere. Beyond his admittedly difficult struggles with California's electric power, Mr. Davis' single-minded fund raising, his penchant for negative campaigning and his aloof style turned off voters and politicians alike.

In the recall campaign, when stories broke about Mr. Schwarzenegger as a woman-groper who admired Adolf Hitler as an orator, it was not long before Mr. Davis went negative again, reminding Californians once more why they didn't like him. So Mr. Schwarzenegger getting elected in the Davis recall amounted to shooting a cold fish in a barrel.

It's inevitable now that this actor will be compared with the last one elected governor in the Golden State - Ronald Reagan, who also faced a hostile Democratic-controlled legislature and got along well enough to move on to the White House.

Sal Russo, a longtime Republican consultant in the state, notes one obvious difference - Mr. Reagan had a vision of where he wanted to go, articulated it well and was willing in spite of his rigid rhetoric to deal with his opposition to get some of what he wanted.

So far anyway, Mr. Russo says, Mr. Schwarzenegger has articulated only the most general of visions - to get California out of its budgetary morass and clean up the dominance of special interests in Sacramento, some of which heavily support his own Republican Party.

There will be those who will compare the bodybuilder governor-elect with another professional muscleman, former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, who went into office with similar objectives. Mr. Ventura butted his head as an independent against legislative leaders of both parties and got little done.

The reality for Mr. Schwarzenegger, despite the rejection of Mr. Davis and his own easy victory over Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante and the cast of dozens, is that California remains a strongly Democratic state. Also, while all elements in his own party rallied to him as their strongest candidate, the dominant GOP strain in Sacramento remains conservative. On social issues such as abortion and gun control, he sounds considerably more moderate than his GOP brethren.

A key figure in the new governor's success or failure may be Democrat John Burton, the Senate president pro tem, who is a strong and influential liberal but also a pragmatic legislative technician. Mr. Schwarzenegger may be able to do business with Mr. Burton if he steers a generally middle-of-the-road course.

Mr. Burton, who often fought with Mr. Davis, should emerge from the recall more powerful than before and with a freer hand with a Republican in the governor's chair. Concerning dealing with the new man, Mr. Burton says: "I got along with Ronald Reagan, I can get along with him. It's all up to him. The ball is in his court."

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau and appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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