Reviewing Arnold's Disaster

Reviewing Arnold's Disaster

NOV. 28, 2010


Although Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger keeps insisting he’s not a lame duck, he is. As he leaves office, the best biography of him so far has come out, “The Governator: From Muscle Beach to His Quest for the White House, the Improbable Rise of Arnold Schwarzenegger,” by Ian Halperin.

The title is unfortunate, likely imposed by an editor eager for sales. More than the other bios on him, the book goes into his background in Austria, bodybuilding and Hollywood. Except for his fans, such details are not so important any more because we’ve seen him actually govern for seven years. Likewise with the numerous unchivalrous incidents Arnold perpetrated on women, many detailed in Halperin’s book.

What’s important now are the policies Arnold undertook in office, and the legacy he leaves behind that we now have to live with.

Arnold talked a lot about freedom, and touted his friendship with the late Milton Friedman, the free-market guru and Nobel Prize winner for economics. But Arnold in 1990 told U.S. News and World Report about his actual philosophy of government, one he would pursue in office:

My relationship to power and authority is that I’m all for it. People need somebody to watch over them. Ninety-five percent of the people in the world need to be told what to do and how to behave.

And early on in a 1977 interview with Stern magazine (a German publication), Arnold gave the reason why so many bored rich people go into politics, a reason that applies to himself, Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina, Steve Poizner and others:

When one has money, one day it becomes less interesting. And when one is the best in film, what can be more interesting? Perhaps power. Then one moves into politics and becomes governor or president or something.

This power obsession is a constant in his career. Earlier this month, when talking about his future role as a global environmental activist, he said:

I always was a big believer in doing things on a global level. Everything I have ever done, I always was interested in doing it globally — if it was the fitness, if it was the bodybuilding, if it was entertainment and acting and show business.

Starstruck Republicans

As we saw in the recent election involving billionaire ebay CEO Meg Whitman, Republicans gladly support candidates who don’t have a history of GOP activism — providing the candidates’ checks to consultants don’t bounce. The same relationship was on display after Arnold won the 2003 Recall Election. Halperin describes it:

Republicans were overjoyed at the cataclysmic turn of events. Could Schwarzenegger’s landslide portend an end to the Democratic domination of the nation’s largest state? If the Democrats lost California, with its fifty-five electoral votes, it would virtually guarantee Republicans in the White House for generations. Was Arnold the party’s new savior? George W. Bush seemed to think so, arriving in California nine days after the recall election to bask in the glow of Arnold’s victory. “I understand there have been a couple of changes in California since I was here last time,” Bush purred.

That delusion was shattered just a year later, even as Arnold still was in his brief fiscal conservative period, when George W. Bush was wiped out in California by John Kerry, losing by a 1.2 million-vote margin.  Arnold gave his stock immigrant-makes-good-becomes-Republican speech at the GOP’s 2004 convention in New York City, in which he claimed he became a Republican because the party backed “free enterprise, getting government off your back, lowering taxes and strengthening the military.”

Budget quick fix

California still suffers from Arnold’s failure to fix the budget mess he was elected in 2003 to resolve. Halperin:

With guns blazing and declaring that “failure is not an option,” the governor [in 2003] demanded the Legislature approve a plan to refinance past debt and place a cap on government spending. Democrats balked, however, fearing that his proposed cap could lead to billions of dollars in cuts to health and social programs.

After being rebuffed, Arnold changed his style from bodybuilding bluster to compromise.

He appeared to take the criticism to heart. Chastened by the defeat, he spent the next week hammering out a compromise with Democratic leaders: a $15 billion bond issue would be put to the voters as a temporary budget fix.

But the compromise left us where we are today, seven years later: with no effective limit on overspending by the Legislature, leading to perennial deficits.

Voter rebuff

Arnold eventually realized that he needed a constitutional limit on spending, which became part of the reform platform of four initiatives on the November 2005 ballot. But he forgot what Milton Friedman had written in “Tyranny of the Status Quo”: that a newly elected democratic leader gets only a few months to advance a reform program. After that, the status quo reasserts itself.

Arnold’s window of opportunity was the few months after he took office in November 2003. Had he put a strong budget limitation on the March 2004 ballot — reasonably limiting growth in state spending to the increases in inflation and population — he likely would have gotten it passed. After all, just such a measure had been passed by voters in 1979 as the Gann Limit; unfortunately, it effectively was repealed in 1990. Had a new effective budget limit passed, Arnold could have turned to other matters without the open wound of the budget again gushing red ink.

Instead, he put on the March 2004 ballot Proposition 57, $15 billion in bonds, and Proposition 58, a toothless balanced-budget initiative. They were Band-Aids that quickly broke.

His time for bucking the status quo had passed. When he tried for real reforms in 2005, the voters were in no mood for reform, especially since the state, and the country, were in the midst of the artificial economic prosperity from the inflated housing market — soon to crash.

Gov.-elect Jerry Brown might not be a fan of Milton Friedman, but he saw what happened to Arnold’s reform attempts. Perhaps he can learn from them.

Enter Maria

Maria Shriver-Kennedy, the governor’s wife, had not been very active in his administration’s first two years. After the November 2005 defeat of Arnold’s Reform Platform, however, Halperin writes:

Maria was not happy. She had been shuffled off to the sidelines long enough….  “I feel that the whole job of being the first lady is so stagnant…. You should cut a ribbon and then go sit in the corner? It is archaic in its concept,” she complained to a reporter in early 2005.

Actually, what’s “archaic” is that Maria thought her job was to be like that of Marie Antoinette, a powerful queen. In fact, in a democracy, the voters elect the person whose name is on the ballot, not the spouse.

Maria also was spoiled:

To make matters worse, since arriving in Sacramento, the couple had been living out of an unglamorous hotel suite at the Hyatt, a far cry from her ritzy Brentwood mansion, and from the American ambassador’s residence, overlooking the Eiffel Tower, where she had spent her youth.

So she took action:

And as she watched her husband eviscerated in the media and his approval ratings plunge for listening to the Republicans who had forced him to the right [with the Reform Platform], Maria was no longer content to sit around and play the smiling wife….

Maria couldn’t stand the Republican strategists, who she believed had hijacked her husband’s agenda and turned him into somebody she didn’t recognize anymore. She knew from the beginning that the special election was political folly, but she had been shut out of the loop repeatedly. Now it was time to exorcise the men who she believed were bringing her husband down in an idiotic power game they couldn’t possibly win.


After his defeat and Maria’s new assertiveness, Arnold essentially took up the positions of Gray Davis, whom the voters had dumped just two years earlier in favor of Arnold. Susan Kennedy (no relation to Maria), Davis’ cabinet secretary, even became Arnold’s chief of staff. Arnold named his new stance “Post-Partisanship.”

Meanwhile, Arnold himself had been moving to the Left. He always had been more comfortable with Hollywood liberals, such as pal Rob Reiner, the director, than with Republican activists, whom he disparaged in private with crude quips. Halperin:

In contrast, he often found himself enjoying the company of his political opponents as they smoked cigars and negotiated agreements together under the canvas tent he had set up in a private courtyard of the state capitol. So far, political life had been like a straitjacket. He wasn’t having any fun. He wasn’t being himself. He had let himself be talked into a radical shift to the right, which he never really agreed with and which had backfired in a very public manner….

Before long, Democrats had filled a number of key posts and were playing a vital role in guiding state policy. Many of the old Republicans were still around, but their role was greatly diminished.

“The Republicans would watch these Democrats with a free run of the governor’s office and it’s like they knew they were licked. They would call the Democrats surrounding Arnold ‘the posse’,” one statehouse staffer told me.

One of the first orders of business was mending fences with Democratic leaders in the Legislature. Maria counseled Arnold to make friends, telling him, “It shouldn’t be to hard to get into bed with the Democrats. You sleep with me every night” — a joke he would later recycle at rallies.

Ironically, Republicans who had supported him so fawningly in 2003, were dumped overboard as soon as they weren’t needed — then got blamed in the 2010 election for his disastrous second term because he had an “R” after his name.

Fabian Socialism

Arnold soon made peace with Democratic Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez:

The results were astonishing [in 2006], especially considering the bridges that had been burned in the previous year. Over Cohibas, the two men developed an ambitious agenda. “I am a results-oriented person,” Arnold declared. “So is the speaker.” Some of the items were pet projects of Núñez. Some belonged to the governor — or, more accurately, to the governor’s wife….

…before long the speaker and the newly progressive governor had agreed to deals on a wide variety of Democratic-sounding initiatives, including Arnold’s surprising support for gradually raising the state minimum wage from $6.75 an hour to $8, the highest rate in the country, despite his two previous vetoes of the measures during his first years in office.

Arnold had jettisoned Friedman’s argument that minimum wage laws kill the jobs of poor people, especially blacks:

Arnold also gave a groveling apology renouncing his previous support for Proposition 187, the 1994 initiative which cut off funding for illegal immigrants (but later was thrown out in court).

By the summer of 2006, Arnold and the speaker suddenly announced that they had agreed to introduce a new bill, the Global Warming Solutions Act [AB 32], to cut greenhouse pollutants and other harmful emissions 25 percent, to 1990 levels, by 2020…. It was perhaps the farthest-reaching and most progressive environmental legislation in U.S. history, and environmentalists couldn’t believe it had come from a Republican. Arnold’s own party, needless to say, was firmly opposed to the legislation; Republicans believed it was a betrayal of the people who had gotten him into office. If they had known who was really responsible, it would confirmed their worst suspicions.

Robert Kennedy Jr. would later admit his direct role in crafting the legislation, “which Arnold read and then adopted.”

Halperin notes that Arnold’s moves to the Kennedy Left boosted upward his previously slumping approval ratings, and led to his easy re-election in November 2006.

It’s been all downhill since them.

Economic termination

In fact, Arnold’s 2006 re-election was due more to the booming economy than his 2006 sellouts to the Democrats. That year was the height of the real-estate bubble that produced a widespread economic boom, which everyone now knows was based on easy money, easy credit and the usual mass delusion of booms. In 2007-08, the boom crashed, and crashed hardest in Nevada and California.

By failing to resolve the state’s budget problems in his first months in office back in 2004, then switching to the spendthrift ways of his wife’s Democratic allies after 2005, Arnold had not prepared the state for the inevitable turning downward of the business cycle. Halperin quotes Jack Pitney of Claremont McKenna College: “Arnold’s governorship was supposed to be an action movie. Now it’s a disaster movie.”

The book finishes its governator section earlier this year, months before the final disaster of the $25 billion deficit Arnold leaves to his successor, Jerry Brown, was unveiled this month by the Legislative Analyst.

President Arnold?

Amazingly, Halperin concludes with a chapter on Arnold’s plans to become president of the United States of America, even though as a foreign-born he’s barred from running by the U.S. Constitution. Arnold actually thinks he can push through a constitutional amendment allowing himself to be elected.

Yet it’s extremely difficult to amend the Constitution. For one thing, two-thirds of both houses of Congress would have to pass an amendment. Yet of 100 U.S. senators, probably 90 have presidential ambitions of their own and wouldn’t want to increase the competition.

And three-fourths of state legislatures must approve an amendment. Yet why should they accommodate an eccentric Californian? Moreover, Arnold leaves office with rock-bottom approval ratings and that $25 billion deficit.

Arnold’s people, according to the book, look to the 26th Amendment, which during the youth unrest of the late 1960s was quickly passed, dropping the voting age requirement from 21 to 18.

Halperin writes that Arnold wouldn’t run as a Democrat or Republican:

Instead, as I have recently learned from a series of insiders, he had devised a bold new strategy for his campaign to take the Oval Office. Arnold and his loyalists have devised a startling plan in which he would run for office … as an independent.

“He won’t actually call himself an independent,” says one consultant familiar with the discussions. “They’re looking at a new term. They’re already focus-grouping a number of options. One of the ideas was ‘the Third Wave’ but that was rejected. In essence, they believe they can generate an entire new political movement. It will involve Reagan Democrats, moderate Republicans disgusted by the hijacking of their party by the religious and radical right, and especially independents. They have polling to show this could be a massive force. They’ve done their homework.”

The scheme, described in some detail by Halperin, reminds me of the convoluted, dreamy plot of “Total Recall,” Arnold’s best movie.

Halperin concludes his book:

But George Butler, who has known him for almost four decades and played a larger role than almost anyone else in launching him into the public arena, has his own revealing assessment of his friend’s chances.

“If you think Arnold can be stopped by a few phrases on a piece of parchment — well, you just don’t know Arnold.

Actually, there’s no way it’s going to happen, especially as the disaster he leaves behind in California unfolds across the coming years, and for which he rightly will be blamed. But it would be amusing to see Arnold try.

John Seiler is a reporter and analyst for His email: [email protected].

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