Blame partisanship for Schwarzenegger's plummeting popularity

November 17, 2005|By FRANK GRUBER

SANTA MONICA, Calif. -- Now that Californians have rejected Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's four initiatives along with two others that he endorsed, there will be much talk about how precipitous was his fall. He was a man, after all, whose popularity not long ago was driving a movement to amend the Constitution to allow the foreign-born to be president.

But Governor Schwarzenegger never was that popular.

Sure, there was a lot of excitement when he became governor - the "governator" and all that. The car tax, girlie men, all the stunts. With the excitement, his popularity in opinion polls hit 69 percent a year ago.

But Mr. Schwarzenegger always had one big problem in California: Not that many people voted for him. Like his predecessor, Gray Davis, Mr. Schwarzenegger was elected with only a plurality, not a majority. In fact, the 4.2 million votes Mr. Schwarzenegger received in the "beauty contest" part of the October 2003 recall election - 48 percent of the total - were only 200,000 more than that the 4 million "no on recall" votes Mr. Davis received in the recall itself.

Mr. Schwarzenegger could have been the hero who got California government working again by bridging the gap between Republicans who were thrilled to have a winner and Democrats who should, based on the votes, run the state but who can't seem to do so. Because of his social liberalism, his Kennedy wife, his Hollywood connections and, yes, his charisma, Mr. Schwarzenegger could have done it. Indeed, he started out by working reasonably well with the Democratic legislature. Together, they passed a reform of the workers' compensation system and a bond issue to balance the budget.

But you can't take the politics out of politics, and sooner or later, our movie star governor, riding a wave of great marketing, was going to have to make political choices. When he campaigned for President Bush, he kicked the sleeping dog, California's Democratic majority.

Even worse - for him and, arguably, for Californians - Mr. Schwarzenegger took a partisan role in the 2004 California elections, endorsing only Republicans. But the Democrats didn't lose a seat in the legislature.

Acting as if he had nothing to lose - but actually with a lot at stake - Mr. Schwarzenegger pushed his "reform" measures, which everyone realized (with the help of a lot of advertising) were less neutral reforms than they were attacks on Democrats and their financial base, the labor unions.

It's important to realize that there was text to Mr. Schwarzenegger's measures as well as subtext, and the subtext was more important. On the surface, the measures didn't seem that unreasonable. Many newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, endorsed several of them.

But the subtext was Mr. Schwarzenegger and his sudden partisanship. His popularity plunged. He could recover and win re-election, but to do so, he'll have to show he can govern with, not against, a Democratic majority that will not get any weaker in the current political climate (i.e., when a Democrat handily won the governorship in Virginia).

Californians are desperate for action to fix the problems that beset an ever-growing state and likely would reward anyone who can get something done. But the signs are not good.

Perhaps governing California has become passM-i. California is too big for a state, too disparate in its needs. Local and regional solutions are the coming thing.

Lost in the electoral shuffle was a truly important vote: The Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second-largest after New York City's, passed its fourth bond issue in eight years. District voters have now taxed themselves $13.5 billion to build 160 new schools and renovate hundreds more - largely to serve the needs of immigrants and their children. That's "Big Dig" money, and the bonds show that if the state won't do what it takes to do the job - raise taxes when necessary - the locals will take matters into their own hands.

If a governor wants to act as if he's irrelevant, the voters will be happy to treat him that way.

Frank Gruber writes a weekly column for The Lookout, a Santa Monica, Calif., news Web site. His e-mail is

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