FOR RELEASE: FRIDAY, OCTOBER 30, 2009, OR THEREAFTER
BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
"SCHWARZENEGGER LEGACY STILL APPEARS NEGATIVE"
Just a little over one year from today, Californians will elect a successor to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. How will they remember him after that successor takes over?
Will he seem a blustery buffoon who caused far more problems than he resolved, a governator who could not govern? Will he look like a hypocrite who preached against accepting special interest campaign donations, then set records for doing so?
Will the verdict on his appeals for "post-partisanship" be that they were mere nostrums doing little or nothing to prevent the state Legislature from sliding into its most divisive era ever? Will he be remembered as the spark behind efforts to reform taxation, budget and water policies in California? Will he leave behind a sharp reduction for the California dream of unfettered opportunity for those brave and visionary enough to settle here?
All these questions remain open, and Schwarzenegger will get ample opportunities over the next year to fix things that have gone wrong and clean up messes made on his watch.
But right now, things don't look good for the Arnold legacy.
The opportunities remaining to him exist mainly because of his enduring celebrity status combined with his drive and a gift for making his every public appearance an event with production values worthy of a feature film.
That larger-than-life quality, sometimes not so obvious up close, where he can occasionally look wan and orange-haired, makes him an unusal lame duck. Despite the limited time left to him, he still has clout because, despite popularity ratings languishing in the 30 percent to 40 percent range, he commands more attention than any California politician ever has, with the possible exception of Ronald Reagan.
Just as the crowds attending Michael Jackson's memorial service in central Los Angeles dwarfed those at Reagan's burial in suburban Simi Valley, no state official in memory has drawn as many gawkers as Schwarzenegger.
But for his legacy to be anything but negative, he'll have to move and move quickly. For one thing, if he doesn't want to be remembered as a tool of his campaign donors, he'll have to stop raising money for his various political committees. Schwarzenegger had the personal resources to stick with his pledge never to accept money from special interests, but he never even tried to do that. Potential successors like Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner, both former Silicon Valley executives and entrepreneurs with large fortunes seeking the Republican nomination to replace Schwarzenegger, have already plunked down more of their own cash than Arnold ever did.
While both hew to a far-right line in many policy areas, they can't be accused of taking payoffs to do so. But that is a credible charge against Schwarzenegger, whose regulatory policies have consistently favored contributors from Chevron to AT&T to the automobile dealers and developers who are among his biggest donors.
If Schwarzenegger is remembered for being loud but ineffective, it will largely be because of series of botched budget negotiations staged as he watched the state's economy decline and did little about it, fobbing virtually all responsibility off onto the world economy.
Even other Republicans don't buy that, blaming him for refusing to exercise his line item veto power except in rare instances.
So far, he's also a failure as a post-partisan. This he can blame partly on term limits, which deprived him of Democratic leaders like former state Senate President John Burton and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, both of whom enjoyed hobnobbing with the celebrity muscleman.
Their departures left him dealing with the likes of former Sen. Don Perata and current Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, along with present Speaker Karen Bass. It's plain Schwarzenegger enjoys little rapport with today's leaders, while his cultivation of past ones no longer helps him out. The result has been one impasse after another over spending on social programs, education and other areas critical to the Democrats and their own campaign backers.
Where Reagan always spoke softly and rarely said a nasty word even about his political opponents, Schwarzenegger has called Democrats "girlie men," vowed to kick their kiesters and failed to win their crucial support for many changes he's wanted to make.
So there has been little or none of the "blowing up boxes," Schwarzenegger promised while a candidate in the 2003 recall election.
He hasn't done much better among Republicans, many of whom are openly skeptical he could ever win a contested primary election in their party, something that was never required of him.
If all this leads to substantial reform including permanent changes in the budget-writing process, public employee pensions and the tax system, Schwarzenegger might still be remembered positively. But rather than putting forward possible ballot initiatives in these areas, he's lately been enamored of the constitutional convention idea, an utterly unproven all-or-nothing approach that raises many more questions that it has so far answered.
The upshot is that as things now stand, Schwarzenegger figures to leave little positive residue from his more than six years in office. But there's still time for him to change that, even though he does not appear inclined to do it.
Email Thomas Elias at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net