The expected defeat of five measures on a special election
ballot Tuesday symbolizes more than just the next phase
in California’s titanic budget struggles. It arguably marks the end
of an era in California politics – the Schwarzenegger era.
More accurately, it may mark the end of Gov. Arnold
Schwarzenegger as a compromising moderate willing to
talk tough, but ultimately postpone the state’s hardest budget decisions.
It remains to be seen what type of political phoenix
emerges from the ashes of the governor’s latest initiative defeat. Schwarzenegger has been
known to reinvent himself after ballot box losses before.
In 2005, after voters rejected Schwarzenegger’s conservative special election package, the governor
tacked hard to the political left, overhauling his
political and policy teams, and bringing on Democrat
Susan Kennedy to be his chief of staff.
That was the abrupt end of Schwarzenegger’s romance with the state’s Republican Party base. But if the comments of Schwarzenegger’s political strategist Adam Mendelsohn are any indication,
Republicans who liked the first version of Arnold Schwarzenegger
might find something to like in Schwarzenegger 3.0.
“In some instances, a loss is as much a mandate as a
win,” said Mendelsohn. “It’s clear that he carries a mandate to cut the California
budget down to the bone.”
Senate leader Darrell Steinberg said he was "wary of such broad pronouncements," but acknowledges that cuts will have to be a big part
of the next phase.
But how will this election change Schwarzenegger? If
the governor’s first political incarnation, from 2003 through the 2005 special election, was as the larger-than-life Terminator-cum-governor, Schwarzenegger 2.0 was a kinder, gentler Arnold. The 2006-2009 Schwarzenegger backed away somewhat from personal
insults of his legislative counterparts and flippant
political stunts, sounding more moderate tones on his
way to an easy reelection victory.
So what’s in store for the re-release of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger?
There may be a clue in the other story from Schwarzeneggerland
Tuesday. The governor decided to skip Election Day
in California all together, opting instead to appear
at a White House photo op as President Obama announced
new federal tailpipe emissions standards that Schwarzenegger
was all too happy to take credit for.
Never mind for a moment that the standards being emulated
were written in 2002 in a bill authored by then-Assemblywoman Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, and signed by Gov. Gray Davis. Schwarzenegger
pressed the Bush administration to allow California
to enact the standards, and that apparently was enough
for the governor to claim ownership of the entire issue.
And a White House photo op was clearly more pleasant
than a voter rebuke.
The juxtaposition of the governor’s White House appearance Tuesday as the election measures
he support went down to defeat 3,000 miles away crystallized the Schwarzenegger paradox.
With this political popularity at record lows in California,
Schwarzenegger still enjoys an immensely positive national
As California pundits piled on the governor, calling
his political ideas failures, CNBC’s Phil LeBeau breathlessly declared this week that
“Schwarzenegger has become the face of the fight for
lower tailpipe emissions.”
But how will Schwarzenegger’s growing image as the jolly green giant mesh with
his next act as governor? The governor also met with
the state’s Congressional delegation asking for federal permission
to cut the state’s Medi-Cal budget by $750 million. Tomorrow, the governor will meet with Health
and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius asking
for the same thing.
If we are to take his May budget revision on its face,
we could be seeing the beginning of Schwarzenegger,
the budget-axe wielding spending slasher.
Democrats don’t exactly agree with that assessment, and are already
preparing to push back against the new, new Schwarzenegger.
But Democrats, too, will be tested by Tuesday’s results. These measures belong as them as much as
they do to Schwarzenegger, and Democrats have not yet
outlined their plans for dealing with the state’s latest $20 billion deficit.
That work begins tomorrow, as Demcoratic leaders hold
a 10 a.m. press conference at the Capitol, followed by
a 3 p.m. meeting of the four legislative leaders and Gov.
Surely, this year’s budget battle will be even more unpleasant than the
12-month budget fight that just concluded Tuesday night.
But Schwarzenegger can take some solace – he’ll always have Washington.