Reaching for a Legacy: A “Nonpartisan” Surrender?
By Peter Schrag
It’s legacy-polishing season, and nobody has ever been busier at it than Arnold Schwarzenegger. Our governor is going out as he came in, and as only he could do it, show-biz all the way. In the process, he’s also determined to prove that he’ll be at the helm until the very last day of his term in Sacramento. How many special legislative sessions has he called?
His own list of achievements, articulated in a string of recent public appearances – a little film, a victory lap on the Jay Leno TV show where his run for office officially began in 2003, an appearance at Democrat Willie Brown’s political breakfast, in interviews – includes his support and successful defense of AB 32, California’s pioneering greenhouse gas emission control law, pension reform, a new set of water laws, even a claim about “historic education reform.”
Not surprisingly, the claims are being met by a fair amount of skepticism, even derision – reminders that he’s leaving the state with a monster deficit, that rather than “tearing up the credit card” as he once promised, the state borrowed as it had never before; that he leaves office with a public approval rating not much higher than his predecessor’s was when he was recalled.
Additionally, some of his claims, such as the one about education reform, were more form than substance, and sometimes less than that. Not even AB 32 was really his. It built on an earlier law signed by Gov. Gray Davis and it came out of the Assembly only after long negotiations during which Schwarzenegger, demanding a more “market based” approach, threatened to veto it.
Yet, to be fair, shouldn’t the ultimate question about that ephemeral thing called “legacy” really be “compared to what?” Schwarzenegger compared to his contemporaries in other states or to the California governors who immediately preceded him? Davis? Pete Wilson? George Deukmejian? Jerry Brown? Ronald Reagan? Pat Brown? With the exception of the last on that list, who could say that Schwarzenegger’s done worse?
But given the timing and circumstances of his election seven years ago – his popularity, his skills as a showman and pitchman -- he was also positioned to do better. Of anyone elected to the office in the past generation, he could have forced the state to confront the hard choices between generous, high-quality pubic services – good roads, great schools, perks and universities, quality health care, a clean environment – and Mississippi-level tax rates.
Instead he remained tied fatally tied to the “starve the beast” ideology that he came to office with. California, he liked to say again and again during his early years in office, didn’t have a revenue problem; it had a spending problem.
But instead of forcing a choice he accepted the fudging and borrowing that reinforced the illusion that it had neither a revenue nor a spending problem. On his first day in office, and facing a multi-billion dollar deficit, he cut yet another $4 billion-plus from the state’s revenues.
Thereafter he shuttled uneasily between tough cop and nice guy. After the nurses and other public sector unions, instead of getting their butts kicked as he promised to do, kicked his in the special election of 2005, he quickly changed tunes. When one movie bombed, he allowed, there was always another.
Yet maybe Schwarzenegger’s biggest failure – something he can’t be blamed for – is his inability to drag his party back from its cultish ideological extremism and ethnic insularity. Sounding almost like Barack Obama, and talking about “post-partisanship”, he publicly rebuked his fellow Republicans for their inability and/or unwillingness to appeal to a broader spectrum of voters. They were failing at the box office, he told them, weren’t filling the seats. Yet even after yet another shellacking in California this year, there was nary a hint that they were prepared to listen.
Maybe the longest lasting reforms of Schwarzenegger’s years in Sacramento will be the changes in the elections process –the commission that will replace the legislature in drawing legislative and congressional districts and the creation of the “top two” election process, approved by the voters last June, in which Californians can choose any candidate regardless of party in the primary and in which the top two vote getters, again regardless of party, will face off in the general election.
No one can predict the real consequences of those changes. The hope for both is that it will produce more moderate candidates, but given California’s political geography, it’s not certain how many politically competitive districts the commission can produce or the extent to which the “blanket” or “open” primary will force candidates to the political center.
What’s very probable after the great sweep of Republican victories in other governorships and legislatures in the 2010 elections is that California’s reforms look ever more like the “unilateral surrender” by California liberals that critics accuse them of. In most other states, Republicans will draw the districts; here, where Democrats will dominate both the legislature and governorship, the commission will. That, ironically, will also be part of Schwarzenegger’s legacy.
Peter Schrag, whose exclusive weekly column appears every Monday in the California Progress Report, is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future and California: America’s High Stakes Experiment. His new book, Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America is now on sale. To reach Peter, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.