The Special Election Hiding in Schwarzenegger’s State of the State Address
By Eric Wooten
We’ve come a long way baby.
A political tsunami swept Arnold Schwarzenegger into office and he enjoyed sky-high popularity and enormous political capital.
Now he’s entering his lame-duck year with approval ratings hovering in the mid-20’s, much of his political capital squandered on the disastrous 2005 special election and a looming legacy that’s a far cry from the lofty goals he set for himself at the beginning of his term.
So why has Arnold outlined a political agenda that's ambitious, even if he had undertaken it at his political apex, rather than his current nadir?
Because he has no intention of succeeding.
But let me back up a moment to highlight the enormity of Arnold’s agenda before moving forward. In brief, here is the bulk of his agenda, with some of the major political obstacles highlighted.
Items 1-3: $500 million jobs package to train and help thousands of Californians get new jobs, homebuyer tax credits rising up-to $10,000, and a sales tax exemption for green technologies. Challenge: California is broke and the money has to come from already devastated programs or new taxes.
Items 4-5: A streamlining of construction permitting and new caps and restrictions on lawsuits. Challenge: After some initial dormancy, the environmental community is mobilizing against Schwarzenegger’s plans, while consumer attorneys will raise significant resources to counter Arnold’s anti-consumer agenda.
Item 6: Pension “reform,” including cutting the pensions of public employees who have already retired. Challenge: Besides being completely unfair and shortsighted, it would be political suicide for many democratic legislators.
Item 7: Tax “reform,” including giving new tax breaks to the rich in exchange for new taxes on everyone else. Challenge: Any vote to make significant changes to tax code is going to require raising taxes on someone or cutting the budget further. Barring “revenue neutral tax swaps,” you’re going to need some 2/3 votes here.
Item 8: Budget reform, specifically the Constitution Amendment sponsored by California Forward, which raises the vote for fees to 2/3 and lowers the vote for budgets to 50%. Challenge: another 2/3 vote on a very contentious issue.
Items 9-10: Guarantee that higher education receives more money than corrections, paid for through supposed savings by privatizing prisons. Challenge: another 2/3 paired with Schwarzenegger’s boldest challenge to the prison guard union.
Now, this is not to say that Arnold couldn’t get watered-down versions of one or two of these things – he (and Susan Kennedy) are masterful deal makers. However, ending your career with a .200 batting average is not how bigger-than-life Schwarzenegger will want his legacy to end.
That means Schwarzenegger will be calling a special election for June of 2011 as one his last acts as Governor.
Think about it, besides being almost impossible to push through the legislature, what do these 10 things have in common? I bet they all poll very well with California’s “moderate middle” voters – the very voters that were key to his Recall victory and those most upset by his lack of progress in Sacramento.
So as the legislative session ends, Arnold will begin to publicly reflect on how “broken” Sacramento is. And as his tenure comes to a close, he will use his powers as governor to call a special election, probably for a single initiative that has qualified a month earlier.
Then, he will barnstorm the state (perhaps even partnering with Governor Davis), railing against the state capitol that was so dysfunctional that no politician, including himself, could fix. Now it’s up to the people (and Arnold’s donors) and a list of the five most popular of his 10 proposals (after all, he’ll have a year to focus group).
It would seem a last perfect maneuver of political jujitsu by Schwarzenegger and Kennedy – turning failure into victory while doing an end-run on the legislature.
Schwarzenegger’s most protected asset has always been is his image and he has spent a lifetime inventing and reinventing himself. By setting an agenda that is impossible to get thru this legislature, but is politically popular, Arnold has setup his stage exit to be as dramatic as his stage entrance.
And after all, Arnold has always been a great showman.
Eric Wooten runs the campaign consulting firm Capitol Coast and campaigned against Governor Schwarzenegger’s ballot measures in 2002 and 2005.