Following Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s final State of the State speech and as his last budget proposal circulates, it is time to assess the long and winding road we have taken with our celebrity governor.
Everybody knows that California is a mess. The budget is an ongoing catastrophe, and public approval of the leadership of the governor and the legislature are at historic lows. The state university system is tottering, and the social safety net is collapsing.
Of course, we can’t blame all of this on the governor. The bad economy is hurting states all over, and the popularity of most governors has taken a big hit. Sure, Schwarzenegger’s performance has the approval of only a quarter of the state’s voters, but times are tough.
California’s governance problems have been diagnosed and over-diagnosed: excessive partisanship, the two-thirds rule to adopt the state budget, the propensity of the voters to direct the budget at the ballot box. But another problem is more pedestrian. It has to do with political leadership.
The American system of democracy sets up structures that turn governing into a Rubik’s Cube. California’s budget process has its two-thirds majority requirement, and the federal government has the arcane Senate with its filibuster rule. Under our doctrine of separation of powers, we depend on presidents and governors and mayors to make it all work.
It is the job of those who hold executive office to set a direction that the people can support. Then they must govern by doing the grunt work of turning good ideas into actual policies. That is why politics is a profession, not a hobby. As President George W. Bush used to complain between vacations: “It’s hard work.”
Leaders have to give up their idealized notions of themselves, or they won’t get anything done. But if they give up too much of that idealized notion, they lose the people. Watch President Obama navigate these two roles as he tries to shepherd his ideas through a Byzantine and cantankerous Congress. The more he works to get his ideas through Congress, the more he loses the excitement from his campaign. But if he gets things done, he will likely rebound politically.
Sometimes the realities of governing put limits on campaign promises. Franklin D. Roosevelt campaigned in 1932 on a balanced budget, but it would have been a disaster to have implemented that policy in the midst of the Depression. It will take a lot longer for President Obama to close the prison at Guantanamo than it appeared during the presidential campaign. Likewise, in California, if Schwarzenegger had been less eager to implement his promised rollback of vehicle license fees (incorrectly labeled a tax), the state today would be in a far smaller budget hole.
A very talented, very smart guy with a knack for getting deals done in Hollywood, Schwarzenegger seemed like the perfect person to turn the struggling state around in 2003, when he entered the governor’s race. As a Westside L.A. resident, a Republican with socially liberal views married to a prominent Democrat, he seemed a comfortable choice for Jewish voters. He was like a movie star version of his friend Dick Riordan, who as mayor was popular among Los Angeles Jews.
Schwarzenegger’s great eye for publicity helped him build a strong governing base in his first several years. He right away showed a willingness to take his job seriously and to treat the legislators as his most important audience. And he wasn’t averse to reaching out to Democrats. As political scientists William M. Chandler and Thad Kousser recently pointed out, the result was a remarkable number of early successes that were rewarded with high public approval.
Yet Arnold’s impressive governing skills, on display in his first two years, were always at war with his desire to get publicity for grand ideas that would showcase how much better he was than the other politicians in Sacramento.
This tightly held self-image often led him to sacrifice successful governance in favor of splashy forays into hyper-partisanship and the presentation of shoddy and superficial ideas for solving the state’s budget problems. On the budget, in particular, he has failed the test of serious governance, a particularly poignant failure, since it was a budget crisis in the early 2000s that powered the recall of his predecessor, Gray Davis, and energized Arnold’s campaign in 2003.
Some of his ideas were ideological, such as limiting environmental reviews or promoting offshore oil drilling. Others were simply impractical, such as filling in budget gaps by borrowing from future lottery revenue. By 2004 and 2005, he had begun to marginalize himself, and it was not until 2006 that he recovered and won re-election. Indeed, he has had some governing successes in the past few years — including a major water agreement. His signing of AB 32 in 2006 to fight climate change may be his most important victory.
Nevertheless, for this governor the art of governing has too often seemed to take second place to what political scientist David Mayhew, in his classic study of Congress, called “position taking,” the art of being known for saying and proposing things. Arnold likes to position himself as if he were a bystander narrating the foibles of those in government who, unlike himself, are the problem. It makes good copy for the national media, who have continued to pay close attention to whatever he says, but it doesn’t get the hard work of governing done.
Schwarzenegger has artfully and genuinely positioned himself as a moderate Republican in a national party that is going off the ideological cliff. That makes him particularly interesting in Washington, D.C., where the right turn of John McCain has left a hole to be filled. It’s fun to see him get into arguments with Sarah Palin, and for both Democrats and moderate Republicans, the governor’s willingness to go toe-to-toe with the far right is a reminder of what was so appealing about his election in the first place.
But on the home front his moderation has been much less visible, particularly in California’s budget crisis, where he has increasingly tied himself to the anti-tax wing of the Republican Party. Having failed to win Republican support for more moderate economic policies, he decided to join them instead.
But with Schwarzenegger, you never know. In the State of the State speech, he took the bold stance that California should spend more on higher education than prisons. This could be visionary. But he offered no way to get there other than through a ridiculous constitutional amendment (more ballot-box budgeting) or privatizing the prisons. He also presented no suggestions on how to reduce the state’s massive prison population. He’s right: a choice must be made between prisons and schools. There is nothing to prevent the governor from proposing a budget with more money for higher education than for prisons. And indeed in this budget, he notably restored last year’s budget cuts from the UC and CSU system, an excellent first step. But to make the choice meaningful, the governor will have to dig deeper and choose between the politics of positioning and the politics of governing.
Rather than wade into the muck of actually aligning revenues with spending, the governor airily dismissed tax increases in favor of another round of tired attacks on waste, fraud and abuse in government. Two previous Republican governors, Ronald Reagan and Pete Wilson, risked major political fallout from their party base by raising taxes in a budget crisis — both survived and the crises passed. What we need now is straight talk on tradeoffs rather than fantasies about misspent funds and suggestions that we lack only the will to identify and eliminate them.
Schwarzenegger’s flow of often-contradictory ideas sometimes creates a feeling of whiplash. He called on California’s Congressional delegation to oppose President Obama’s health care plan, which he described as based on backdoor dealings. Then on national television he defended the president on national security. And he tried to threaten the White House by saying that if no more federal funds come into the state, he will cut even more social programs. This leaves us wondering: Where is this all going? Is he trying to make the White House and Washington allies or adversaries?
If California’s government works, the governor succeeds. Governing means correctly identifying our core problems, proposing ideas that will address them and then getting legislation passed in some form. Grand posturing on the political stage can help win victories, but it is no substitute for substance.
In the absence of real leadership, we Californians today are running around like chickens without our heads. If our governor produces a fountain of ideas that may or may not make sense, why shouldn’t we do the same thing?
It is worrisome that many Californians would like to go even further away from professional government, perhaps by making the legislature part time. But amateur hour is exactly what has been killing California government, whether through term limits, ballot measures, or the possibility of a runaway constitutional convention.
Governor Schwarzenegger’s legacy is not set in stone. He still has all the ingredients to leave the state in significantly better shape than he found it. He is not an ideologue locked into stale beliefs. He has shown before that he can focus on the task at hand and forge major agreements to advance the state’s best interests. He can be very professional when he is not diverted by a wider audience than the people of California.
Despite his low approval ratings, he is not a public figure who is loathed and written off. He still has a reservoir of positive feelings that he can draw upon. In the time he has left in office, he can make certain that the next governor has the benefit of the extremely difficult choices made by his or her predecessor. If he does, history will treat him well. l
Raphael J. Sonenshein is chair of the Division of Politics, Administration and Justice at Cal State Fullerton.