News & Politics

Arnold's Gray Zone

With his strange transformation into Gray Davis, Schwarzenegger is alienating his Republican base as well as the fickle voters of California.
Two days after watching all of the initiatives he backed rejected by California voters in the special election November 8, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced he was placing the blame squarely on his own hulking shoulders.

"I take full responsibility for this special election. I take full responsibility for its failure. I take full responsibility for everything," Schwarzenegger said. He promised that while he would make amends with the Democrats in Sacramento and the labor groups he had pilloried for months, he wouldn't make any blood sacrifices within his own staff.

"I'm not that kind of a guy. I don't blame or point fingers at anybody. In fact, I want to do the opposite. I want to say thank-you to my team."

Two weeks later, Schwarzenegger thanked his chief of staff, Patricia Clarey, with a pink slip. Then he dipped into the pockets of the man he deposed in the recall election two years before, hiring former Gray Davis aide Susan Kennedy as Clarey's replacement. Schwarzenegger started speaking the politics of his predecessor as well, pushing for a state bond of at least $50 billion to spend on schools, roads and other public infrastructure. The bond "could be much, much bigger," he told the press.

More recently, Schwarzenegger replaced the arch-conservative California Supreme Court Judge Janice Rogers Brown -- over whom George Bush had fought with Democrats in the Senate for years to place on a circuit court -- with a moderate appellate judge, Carol Corrigan. Sacramento Democrats were cooing, and the media took these events and broadcast Schwarzenegger's conversion to "moderate" and "centrist" politics. It was morning in California.

Meanwhile, leaders and activists in his own party were hopping mad at the hiring of Kennedy, an openly gay former director of the California Democratic Party and California Abortion Rights Action League. Ed Laning, the California Republican Party's Vice-Chairman for the Inland Region, a heavily conservative area of Southern California, swore he would resign if Schwarzenegger didn't rescind the appointment, and soon after made good on his promise.

Mark Bucher, treasurer and spokesman for the powerful Orange County Republican Party said of the Kennedy appointment, "I am very concerned. It's not something I'd expect of Republican officeholders."

Bucher said there was a lot of dismay among party members and activists across Southern California. Asked whether he viewed the Kennedy appointment as more significant than Schwarzenegger's recent proposals to finance California infrastructure projects with bonds, Bucher replied, "People are policy."

Bucher and other Republicans interviewed for this article who had strongly backed Schwarzenegger's initiatives were disappointed that they didn't pass, but they didn't hold it against him for trying. What they took issue with was his hiring of Kennedy.

Mike Spence, president of the 10,000 activist member California Republican Assembly, which organizes voters and spends money on running very conservative candidates for open seats and against more moderate GOP incumbents, was equally dismayed about Schwarzenegger's pick.

"She's an operative," he said, "a pure Gray Davis Democrat, and that's what Schwarzenegger is quickly becoming himself. This stuff with the bonds is irresponsible -- just pulling out another credit card and charging on it." Asked whether it was Susan Kennedy's sexual orientation that so angered California conservatives, Spence said, "That's a small part of it. If it were that by itself, I don't think there would be so much anger. It's her political resume that's the problem."

Mike Spence, and two other directors of Republican organizations -- the Young Republican Federation of California, and the California Republican Lawyers -- co-authored an article against Schwarzenegger's bond proposals warning him not to "terminate his base": "Can you hear that? That rumbling is the sound of over five million registered Republicans growing increasingly concerned about the conduct of a Governor they helped elect." Later in the article they concluded, "This bond measure is yet another symptom of the illness that has beset the Governor. It will alienate the millions of California Republicans that make up his base. It is lunacy to imply that the Governor can simply cast aside the opinion of 35% of the electorate."

Faced with a backlash from his own party, Schwarzenegger delivered an unflinching and slopplily argued denial-of-clemency letter on Monday for Stanley Tookie Williams as a sop to his Republican base. While Schwarzenegger's decision reflected a wide majority of the California populace's opinion on the death penalty, the tone of the letter gave every indication of being a show of enthusiasm for his hard-right base; sincerely yours, desperate Gov. Schwarzenegger. The political undercurrents in the Williams execution were transparent; former Republican Governor Pete Wilson openly remarked that Schwarzenegger "reached a conclusion that is very supported."

But what politics can Arnold Schwarzenegger offer to assuage the ire of the voters of California?

Voters sent him in 2003 to replace establishment politico Gray Davis, whom they loathed for feckless tenure and unimaginative status quo politics in the governor's office. After two years with few results and colossal failure in the special election, Schwarzenegger finds himself shuffling between Gray politics and -- almost literally -- throwing bones to the Republican base. It's difficult to imagine how this transformation might appeal to the voters of California voters. After all, if they liked what Gray Davis had done during his term they wouldn't have overwhelmingly recalled him.

The opportunities for reform politics that a majority of California voters would welcome are virtually infinite. Among those: radically restructure the state's energy grid to localize production and consumption centers; bring mass transit projects to Southern California; reform the property tax laws in the state to bring in revenues to the deficit-plagued Treasury; and bring the state Constitution into the modern era and introduce proportional representation and mechanisms to encourage self-government at the local level.

Schwarzenegger has two challengers vying for the Democratic nomination to run against him in the general election in November 2006: Phil Angelides, California's state treasurer, and Steve Westley, the California state controller. Angelides is a long-time player in the Democratic Party club, having served as chair of the party. He's been endorsed by most of the major figures in California Democratic politics. Westley does not have the money or backing that Angelides does. As author Bill Greider described at length in The Nation, Angelides has shown himself as treasurer to have reform-minded views, working with Labor organizations to have their enormous pension funds to drop their holdings in tobacco companies and blacklist markets that ignore international labor standards.

The 2006 governor's race may still be another establishment battle with voters gazing blankly from the sidelines if the Democratic nominee doesn't stake out clear positions on serious political reform. But if Schwarzenegger continues to hover between Gray politics and the right, more independent voters will stay at home than they did in 2003 and the more progressive appeal that Angelides and Westley have for California's registered Democrats -- who outnumber registered Republicans by nine percent of registered voters -- may swing it in their favor.

That is of course, if Schwarzenegger doesn't manage to convince the same voters who elected him that he's a risk taker and "independent" of Sacramento in his political moves over the next year. And while his base might be fuming at Schwarzenegger's recent moves, it didn't stop the Republican Party from endorsing him -- before the primary has taken place. And as Schwarzenegger moves toward the Gray zone, he may find that traditional conservatives will abandon him. Spence's organization has asked the Republican Party to rescind its endorsement of Schwarzenegger. "If Arnold keeps governing like this, there's going to be a lot less motivation for us to go out get votes for him," Spence said.

Last Thursday, Schwarzenegger emerged from a meeting with party leaders to address his recent moves. After the meeting, Schwarzenegger declared that the Republican party was now "one big family."

"It's not over," Mike Spence told the San Jose Mercury News. "The governor, if he proposes his big general obligation bond, there's going to be another big fight over that, and I think the dissatisfaction is going to continue.''

In a recent opinion commentary, California conservative leader and State Assemblyman Raymond Haynes, who represents Riverside and San Diego counties reflected on Schwarzenegger's recent transformation:
If the sole purpose of politics is to obtain power, then polls will drive policy. But, as Gray Davis discovered, people are fickle. If they think all a politician wants is power, they will deprive him of that power as quickly as they entrusted him or her with it.
Soon enough, California voters will decide who deserves the power, and who deserves to be deprived of it. It's fair to expect that if they are offered the same politics that they were in the previous two elections, they'll reject it again.
Jan Frel is an AlterNet staff writer.