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Arnold Schwarzenegger, Reformer.

Arnold Schwarzenegger's election as California governor in 2003 was clearly the political story of that year; Arnold instantly became a rising political star and media candidate for the Republican nomination in 2008. There was even a movement to amend the U.S. Constitution to allow foreign-born citizens to run for America's highest office.

So what happened? Today, less than two years later, if you believe the polls, Schwarzenegger has little remaining popular support in California. Nationally, Arnold is rarely-- if ever-- mentioned as a potential candidate for 2008.


Pete Du Pont, nonetheless, says that Arnold's "19-month career is easily the most visionary and strongest gubernatorial leadership performance in modern American history":

Within hours of taking office he undid Mr. Davis's tripling of the car tax, cutting taxes by about $2 billion. He slashed spending by about $6 billion in a first step to eliminate the state's $22 billion deficit. The current budget is balanced at a level $11 billion less than the projected baseline when he took office. In March 2004 the voters passed Proposition 58, the first Schwarzenegger ballot initiative, requiring a balanced budget, establishing a Rainy Day Fund to accumulate cash to meet future unexpected economic declines, and banning the use of bonds to finance future deficits.

But that was just the beginning. A week ago the governor called a special election for Nov. 8 to vote on three policy changes that the Democrat-controlled legislature has refused to consider: stronger state spending restraints, higher standards for public school teachers, and retired judges rather than legislators drawing legislative district boundaries.

Fiscal discipline-

The most economically important is Measure 1131, which would put additional controls on state spending. Mr. Davis drove spending up by one-third in his five years in office; Mr. Schwarzenegger's proposition would limit spending increases to average revenue growth over the previous three years and give the governor the power to reduce spending if revenue decreases and the legislature fails to act to correct the deficit.

Mandatory fiscal discipline is really the only way to control spending, given the system we have, a system in which voters expect something tangible from their elected officials. Pork barrel and gargantuan new government programs, some people believe, are necessary for reelection. Take away that political incentive, add a mandatory restraint on spending, and you'll be far more likely to see fiscal discipline.

Taking on the teachers' unions-

A second proposition seeks to improve the quality of California public school teachers' skills by requiring five instead of three years of work before they gain tenure and making two consecutive unsatisfactory evaluations sufficient reason to fire a teacher.

How to fix a broken education system: throw more money at it? Or demand results, reward merit, and punish failure? Seems like an easy one. If anything, it does not go far enough.


Finally comes the most politically explosive Schwarzenegger proposal--mandating the drawing of legislative district lines by retired judges. There is no question that when legislators of both parties work together to draw district lines there is political collusion to safeguard their own seats. As California economist Art Laffer (a supporter of the proposition) pointed out, among the 80 state Assembly seats, 20 Senate seats and 53 U.S. House seats up for election in 2004, "not one seat of the 153 changed party affiliation." The Declaration of Purpose of the proposition has it right: "Partisan gerrymandering, uncompetitive districts, [and] ideological polarization" govern the redistricting process.

Changing redistricting from a partisan process to an ostensibly non-partisan one angers the entrenched establishment in each party. But redistricting reform, in total, is a good thing. The lack of competitive elections in California and elsewhere around the country is startling. It's admirable that Arnold wants to take this issue on.

Because of his visionary agenda, Arnold Schwarzenegger's poll ratings, by nearly any standard, are way down. You read that correctly. Because, not in spite of.

BECAUSE of his visionary agenda, not in spite of it. Because he's taken on such a broad array of special interests, not in spite of it. Because he's a different kind of politician, not beholden to the typical political pandering and rigamarole, not in spite of it.

Arnold ran on a platform of fighting against California's special interests. While many voters rallied behind that idea in principle, California is a grassroots special interest state; many voters belong to the very special interest groups that Arnold decided to take on. Californians wanted Arnold to terminate the special interests, just not their own.

And the same thing is happening at the national level to President Bush. Fred Barnes nailed it when he noted:

Bush doesn't have the second-term blues, his administration hasn't lost its zeal, and he hasn't been troubled by scandal or the lack of a clear policy agenda. Nor is he suffering solely from his single-minded pursuit of Social Security reform. Like Schwarzenegger, the president has taken on a string of big issues--Iraq, a drastic foreign-policy overhaul, judges, plus Social Security--with predictable results. These are issues that generate political conflict. They upset settled practice, rile various institutions, stir strong opposition, and keep poll ratings low. For an activist president, lack of popularity is part of the package.

It's sad but true that our political system, assuming the economy is not in the tank, rewards presidents (and sometimes governors) for doing little.

Arnold's poll problems stem from the fact that he has taken on so many deeply entrenched forces in California politics, and, unlike President Bush, who, no matter how bad the news, maintains a committed baseline of support, Arnold Schwarzenegger's base is far smaller in "blue state" California. Even California conservatives themselves never really coalesced behind the socially moderate (or even, perhaps, liberal) Arnold. Without the ability to rely on a font of steady and dependable support, even an action hero keeping election promises can see his approval rating dip below 40%.

A bet against Arnold, though, is not a particularly wise bet. With California's economy steaming ahead, a win on some of these key ballot initiatives could revive Arnold Schwarzenegger's political fortunes moving closer to reelection in 2006. Win or lose, he'll leave a legacy of taking on big reforms, even when those reforms turn powerful special interests against him.

Posted by Will Franklin · 24 June 2005 10:58 AM


Arnold Is awesome!...

Posted by: Zsa Zsa at June 24, 2005 11:12 AM

When a politician takes on those Teachers Unions... Heaven forbid!...Watch out!!!

Posted by: Zsa Zsa at June 25, 2005 07:39 AM

Hello! Arnold and George W. have that visionary agenda thing in common...Both men are successful business men! Together they could probably get this Country going so well that all Americans would actually be able to benefit! ...

Posted by: Cindy T. at June 25, 2005 10:56 AM