Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
March 31 2005 1:47 PM

Arnold Schwarzenegger

The Governator gets serious.

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The antics that Arnold Schwarzenegger employs each day would turn any other politician into a joke. The Governator of California drives around Sacramento in an olive-green, doorless Hummer with the license plate "Reform 1." He holds court in a majestic white tent outside the governor's office, like an Arab sheik, so that he can smoke the cigars that are forbidden inside state buildings. He encourages visitors to touch the sword he brandished in Conan the Barbarian. His conversation overflows with winking references to the "part" he is now playing, or the "theatrics" of a political battle, and he often relies on his trademark "I'll be baaaaahck!"

But then Schwarzenegger isn't any other politician—by his own lights, he's an anti-politician. And even if he's not really fooling anyone, his act is part of his appeal. When he appeared on HardballWith Chris Matthews in mid-March, the governor said that the hardest part of his job was "never becoming a politician. So, don't ask me what it is like to be a politician, because I have never been a politician and never will be a politician." Matthews turned to his audience at Stanford University and asked how many thought Schwarzenegger was indeed a politician. Virtually every hand in the room went up. "You lost," said Matthews. Schwarzenegger simply laughed.

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A year and a half after his victory in the recall election that ousted his Democratic predecessor, Gray Davis, Schwarzenegger has given up trying to govern in a conventional way. He no longer wants to win over the Democrats who dominate California government with promises of cooperation and compromise, or to browbeat them as he famously did last year by calling them (what else?) "girly men." Instead, Schwarzenegger has decided to bypass the legislature entirely by putting his agenda directly to the voters, in the form of several referenda in a November special election that he says will reform state government by reducing spending at a time of serious budget deficits and by changing how legislative districts are drawn. He recently launched a $50 million fund-raising campaign for TV ads to support the referenda, starring Guess Who. His opponents, Democratic leaders and a coalition of public-sector unions, are raising money for a negative ad campaign of their own. They say Schwarzenegger can't just bulldoze his way through the budget crisis or the state's union contracts. But the more they complain, the more they play into Schwarzenegger's hands: What he wants most is a seemingly insurmountable challenge that he can then surmount.

Schwarzenegger has assembled a sophisticated stable of Arnistas led by his wife, Maria Shriver, Chief of Staff Pat Clarey, political consultant Mike Murphy, and Communications Chief Rob Stutzman. He also calls financier Warren Buffet and former Secretary of State George Shultz for advice. With this help, the governor unveiled four major initiatives in January: spending controls for state government, merit pay for public school teachers, a privatizing scheme for public pensions, and a proposal to put retired judges in charge of legislative redistricting. The spending-control measure would limit the governor's own choices by forcing the legislative and executive branches to impose rigid budget cuts whenever spending exceeds revenue. Economists from both parties agree that the plan is likely to make only a small dent in the state's budget woes. But Schwarzenegger is also sticking to a blanket refusal to raise taxes, though two of his Republican predecessors, Ronald Reagan and Pete Wilson, did just that when they faced large deficits.

More intriguing is Schwarzenegger's plan to change the traditional method for redistricting state legislative seats, replacing the legislators who essentially choose which voters will re-elect them with retired judges who would presumably better resist gerrymandering. It's easy to understand Schwarzenegger's frustration with the Democrats' firm control of the California legislature. Not a single state lawmaker or member of Congress lost in the 2004 election, an extreme example of the increasingly iron grip of incumbents across the country. Organizations devoted to good government applaud the redistricting idea as sound and overdue. Elected officials, meanwhile, are predictably unenthusiastic. Democratic Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez has said he will support judicial redistricting but not until after the 2010 census. By that time, thanks to term limits, Nuñez and all the other legislators elected in 2004 will be out of office.

To temper the rising cost of public pensions, Schwarzenegger also has proposed converting them to 401(k)-style plans, a younger cousin of President Bush's hopes for Social Security. The idea sounds like a creative way to remove a growing drag on the state budget. Yet those pesky economists point out that it would be feasible for California to change plans only for new state employees and that any savings are at least 10 years away. As for Schwarzenegger's plan for merit pay for public school teachers, it has prompted the California Teachers Association to consider raising member dues from $500 to $560 to fight the proposal.

Holding a special election in the fall for Schwarzenegger's referenda will cost California taxpayers between $50 million and $70 million. Waiting until 2006, on the other hand, would mean the initiatives could go on the regularly scheduled ballot at no extra cost. But holding off for a year would rob Schwarzenegger of an early bid for national attention. If he can win on long odds, he'll attract the attention of voters across the country.

Schwarzenegger's opponents argue that even if he pushes through every referendum he puts up in November, his victories will only paper over the state's budget problems and the decline of its schools. Historically speaking, large state budget deficits have been reduced only by long-term fiscal discipline and a lift in the economy that beefs up tax revenues. The governor may also be making himself vulnerable by breaking his campaign promise to exclude special interests from Sacramento. By hitting the fund-raising trail hard, he is asking for help from many of the people he promised to cut out, namely big corporate donors.

But none of that may matter if Schwarzenegger's showmanship and palpable political skills continue to deflect substantive criticism. In classic Ronald Reagan fashion, he often disarms opponents by acknowledging what they say with a laugh and a twinkle of the eye, or else by denying it despite clear evidence to the contrary. When he was running for governor, Schwarzenegger deftly skirted attacks about his father's Nazi years and his own serial groping of women in his bodybuilder and movie-star eras. On the other side of this year's battles in office lies the biggest political prize of all, the White House. It would be unseemly for Schwarzenegger to talk about it openly or to campaign for a constitutional amendment that allows foreign-born citizens to become president. The Arnistas have many moves to make first. But they're on their way.

Seth Faison, former Shanghai bureau chief for the New York Times, is the author of South of the Clouds: Exploring the Hidden Realms of China. He lives in Los Angeles.

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