Time and the Governor

It's hard for a politician to lose more decisively than California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger did on Tuesday night. He walked into the schoolyard -- almost literally, since some of his actions were aimed specifically at the state's public education system -- and picked a fight, and then got thoroughly whipped in full view of everyone assembled. The particular fight this time was Mr. Schwarzenegger's authorization of a special, off-year election to ask voter approval of four ballot measures that his own staff had authored.

The centerpiece of the governor's efforts -- a state constitutional amendment that would have given him enhanced powers over the state budget -- did not even get 40 percent of the vote, and a proposal to take drawing of legislative district lines out of the hands of the legislature didn't do much better. His two other measures-increasing state powers over public teacher tenure and curbing the ability of unions to contribute to political campaigns-hovered around 45 percent approval. It was a massive, resounding political defeat for a man who had blown away the field only two years ago to win the governership in a special recall election.

Within moments after Mr. Schwarzenegger made his concession speech at a Beverly Hills hotel on Tuesday night, political observers were calling this a self-inflicted wound, accusing the governor and his advisors of hubris, overreaching in an attempt to stuff their mouths with political power. An opponent, Democratic State Senate leader Don Perata, put it about as succinctly as you could. "He got a lot of really bad advice," Mr. Perata remarked, a little drily, advancing the prevailing political wisdom that calling the special election had been a "bad idea," to quote one of Mr. Schwarzenegger's more famous movie quips.

Respectfully, I'm going to have to disagree with the prevailing political wisdom. What did Mr. Schwarzenegger in was time. And in a truly Einsteinian twist, the governor was plagued both by too much of it, and too little, simultaneously.

Regarding the issue of too much time

Movie actors at the upper levels of box office stardom -- as Mr. Schwarzenegger once was -- operate on a public exposure schedule that roughly coincides with their movie releases. Except for teaser appearances here and there, such stars virtually disappear from public view for months while they are preparing for and filming their newest feature. Then, in the weeks immediately preceding that movie's release, they are suddenly everywhere: on bus billboards and television commercials, on Oprah, on Larry King and Leno and everything in between, interviewing up to their eyeballs. You can't get rid of them. The idea is to overwhelm the public, saturate us with their presence, make us believe that YOU HAVE JUST GOT TO GO SEE THAT MOVIE, OR YOU ARE GOING TO JUST DIE! These campaigns are all exquisitely timed to peak right at opening weekend. After that, except for the occasional carefully scripted promotional appearance or red carpet stroll, the stars disappear again until the next movie comes up, beginning the cycle anew.

Mr. Schwarzenegger proved an absolute genius in this format and if his movies were not critical successes, they certainly performed magnificently at the box office. And because of the shortened time span of the 2003 California gubernatorial recall race, he was initially able to translate the winning formula to that arena as well, overwhelming the state's voting public with a clever combination of star power and clever quips that translated into interesting sound bites.

What those tactics masked was that over the long haul -- when you listen to more than three minutes of one of his speeches or see him on the news more than a couple of nights in a row -- Mr. Schwarzenegger tends to grate on your nerves.

This is not ideological. Eventually, Ronald Reagan's sunny personality and self-deprecating humor wore away much of the grumpiness of his Democratic and progressive opponents, even while they continued to blast away at his positions and policies. Mr. Schwarzenegger does just the opposite. The more you see of him, the more he gives you to fuel your anger against him, until you begin to forget what made you mad in the first place, and just know that you are mad. It's like the worst of marriages.

But it was the very boastful, World Wrestling Federation-type persona that made Mr. Schwarzenegger such a hit as first a body building personality and then a movie star that got him into trouble as a politician. He began his body building career baiting the shy and stuttering Lou Ferragamo and carried those activities into his action figure movie roles. His fans loved it when his robot character blew away the bad guys in Terminator 2 with the deadpan line "Hasta la vista, baby," or, in the midst of kicking Bill Duke's ass in Commando, declaring "I eat Green Berets for breakfast. And right now I'm very hungry." He was even able to get away with overt battery on a female, punching out movie wife Sharon Stone in Total Recall while telling her "consider this a divorce." Audiences went for it because, like Jessica Rabbit, Stone's character had been drawn to be so bad.

In that cartoon-type movie world Mr. Schwarzenegger once ruled, those lines got the governor the greatest applause, both in the theaters and during promotional tours. But he got in trouble when he tried to repeat them in the real world during his political battles, once famously calling the Democratic members of the state legislature "girlie men" or boasting that "the special interests don't like me in Sacramento, because I am always kicking their butts." These were all delivered with cigar-smoking winks, and the California voters were all supposed to know that this was part of a great joke, not to be taken seriously.

But the mostly-women members of the "special interest" groups he was targeting at that particular time --teachers and nurses -- were not amused, and neither were many of the state's voters. (One of the more striking memories of the 2005 special election will always be the union victory party held on election night in the same hotel and at the same time that Mr. Schwarzenegger was giving his concession speech, in which delighted nurses formed a conga line and shouted "We are the nurses, the mighty, mighty nurses!" while snake-hipping their way around and around the room.)

Worse than that, the political demands of the governor's office did not allow Mr. Schwarzenegger to manipulate his onscreen time as he was able to do when he was only in the movies. And the more California voters saw of him, the less they seemed to like of him. His problem here, then, was that there was too much time to get to know him.

Regarding the issue of too little time

The term of a state governor -- or a United States president -- is set at four years, but in actuality, that only gives two years of governing time for the first-termer. By the third year, with opposition candidates identifying themselves and making speeches and giving interviews, the incumbent's actions start coming under the political microscope again. And the fourth year, of course, is taken up entirely by the campaign for re-election. A governor has the first two years, then, to compile a record of accomplishments -- as opposed to a list of promises -- before the political opposition starts seriously putting on the brakes. This is even more critical in a state, like California, where the opposition party holds a majority in the legislature.

But because he was elected following the recall of former Governer Gray Davis after one year in office, Mr. Schwarzenegger had only three years to serve his term. That left him, in actuality, only one year to build up a political resume, forcing him into some quick fixes with long-term consequences. He fulfilled his campaign promise to lower California's unpopularly high automobile registration fee. In so doing, however, he left himself with less available money to work on California's severe budget crisis, a problem he had also promised to fix. That led him to the infamous education compact of 2004, the deal in which Mr. Schwarzenegger won the promise of state primary and college leaders to forego full educational funding for one year in return for the governor's guarantee of a restoration of that funding in perpetuity beginning the following year.

But Mr. Schwarzenegger could not keep his promise to those educators to put back their state funding if he was going to both return fiscal solvency to the state budget as well as avoid raising taxes, two of the platforms on which he won the governership. Thus, he began 2005 with bleak prospects, looking at a year in which opposition to his policies would mount as his ability to both govern and maneuver politically would correspondingly dwindle.

Thus was born the self-titled "Year of Reform" in which Mr. Schwarzenegger decided to stake the future of his governorship on one roll of the dice: a special election in which he would go over the heads of the unions and state educational establishment and the Democratic Party opposition and ask the state's voters to grant him sweeping powers to deal with the state's problems. His hope was in part that returning to the limited format of an election campaign, he could recapture the popularity that won him the governorship in the first place.

It was a gamble, and he lost that gamble, about as badly as you can. But given the political realities -- both his own limitations as well as the limitations of time -- it's not clear he had much choice. Schwarzenegger limps, now, into the 2006 election as a wounded governor, the political hellhounds at his heels. But that's probably the same scenario he would have faced anyway, without the special election. This wasn't so much a case of hubris as it was a case of had-to-be inevitability.


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