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Schwarzenegger, lagging in polls, may have overplayed his hand
By Bill Ainsworth
May 2, 2005
SACRAMENTO - During a productive, bipartisan beginning to his political career, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger uttered a phrase that not only drew worldwide attention, but also foreshadowed a shift to a more combative style: "girlie men."
The taunt, aimed at Democrats during stalled budget negotiations last year, was delivered with some humor. Not so with more recent barbs.
Schwarzenegger this year has labeled nurse and teacher unions "special interests," called Democratic legislators "spending addicts" and said his proposals are aimed at changing policies and programs "where all the evil is."
During his kinder, gentler first year, Schwarzenegger enjoyed soaring approval ratings, enacted a major workers' compensation package and enlisted Democrats to help persuade voters to approve a budget bailout. He even drew comparisons with Earl Warren, a Republican governor known for his bipartisan appeal.
Now he is mired in political warfare, much of it his own making. Critics have depicted him as untrustworthy, his approval ratings have plummeted and polls show that his once-considerable support among Democratic and independent voters has largely vanished.
Schwarzenegger's agenda - limit spending, revamp public pensions to save money, delay teacher tenure, enact teacher merit pay and change how political districts are drawn - is clearly on the ropes. Even supporters admit that. He has withdrawn his pension initiative and retreated on redistricting, and the other proposals don't seem to be gaining traction.
Many Democrats and some Republicans believe Schwarzenegger will back away from a special election that he has threatened to call for November if the Legislature does not enact his agenda. Some even question whether he'll seek a second term, especially since California first lady Maria Shriver at one point publicly urged him to come home.
How did all this happen to the man who was the supernova of American politics just months ago?
Critics say the governor overplayed his hand, misread his successes from last year and was so impatient for a even greater triumph that he ignored basic rules of California politics.
"It was a combination of arrogance and bad advice," said Roger Salazar, who represents the Education Coalition, which has pounded the governor in television ads that have largely gone unanswered.
In a state dominated by Democrats, Schwarzenegger may have squandered his popularity by abandoning cooperation and pushing unpopular issues.
"He picked too many fights. He picked them over the wrong issues and he's got too many adversaries," said Darry Sragow, a Democratic consultant who has worked with Schwarzenegger on ballot measures.
But supporters say the governor, because of his persona, has the unique ability to move fast by bringing matters to the voters and sidestepping the Legislature, which often works at a frustratingly slow pace for a man who came to office promising "action, action, action."
"This man is the governor for only a short time. He wants to get as much done as possible," said Joel Fox, co-chairman of Citizens to Save California, the business group promoting the governor's ballot measures.
Last year, Schwarzenegger cultivated his image as a pro-business Republican who supports environmental protections, gay rights and abortion rights. He worked with Democrats, who control both houses of the Legislature, and charmed many members with cigars in his smoking tent in the Capitol courtyard.
"It's just so incredible here," Schwarzenegger said in a July interview in the California Journal
. "And that is why I'm so happy being governor at this time, because everyone is working so well together."
But when negotiations dragged on past the budget deadline, Schwarzenegger changed his tune, calling Democrats "girlie men" - not strong enough to stand up to organized labor to make the changes needed to restore the state's fiscal health.
Schwarzenegger's communications director, Rob Stutzman, said the budget experience prompted hiscall in January for major changes because Schwarzenegger was convinced "the system automatically lends itself to deficit spending."
The spending-limit measure fit with the governor's priorities of fixing the budget and boosting the economy. But then he embraced the initiative to shift the authority to draw legislative and congressional districts away from the legislators and give it to a panel of retired judges. That was a red flag not only for majority Democrats, but for many Republicans as well, who in a rare moment of agreement come to terms on drawing districts that protect incumbents.
In addition, Schwarzenegger launched other initiatives that had never been among his priorities - shifting pensions to a 401(k)-style program for new state employees, requiring teachers to work five years rather than two to earn tenure and enacting a merit-pay system for teachers.
Schwarzenegger's aides say they believe the governor's salesmanship skills will help him sell the unrelated initiatives as one package.
But critics wonder why the governor included the two education ballot measures, which even some conservatives see as marginal because they don't go to the heart of what many see as the problems with public schools.
Some believe Schwarzenegger recycled his ideas from former Gov. Pete Wilson, a longtime friend and adviser. Schwarzenegger is surrounded by former Wilson aides and political operatives, including Patricia Clarey, his chief of staff.
Stutzman disputes that. "This is Arnold Schwarzenegger's reform for California," he said.
But Schwarzenegger reinforced the Wilson connection with recent tough statements about sealing off the border to illegal immigrants. He even praised the controversial Minuteman Project volunteers who recently patrolled the Arizona-Mexico border. President Bush has called them vigilantes.
In 1994, polls showed Wilson highly unpopular, but he rejuvenated his re-election campaign with tough talk about illegal immigration and won a second term.
Some argue that Schwarzenegger's education ballot initiatives divert attention from his decision to break a pledge to give schools $2 billion more.
Last year, as part of his effort to balance the budget, Schwarzenegger won the blessing of the powerful California Teachers Association to give up $2 billion in education funds that state law required.
In exchange, Schwarzenegger said he would restore the money. In January, however, he reneged on his pledge, saying the state couldn't afford it without decimating other programs.
His opponents pounced. For months, the California Teachers Association has been funding a nightly barrage of advertisements featuring teachers who accuse the governor of breaking his word.
Inspired by success
In pursuing initiatives, Schwarzenegger often cites his workers' compensation overhaul. Using the threat of an initiative that would have slashed injured-worker benefits, Schwarzenegger persuaded the Legislature to pass a compromise plan.
Many argue that the model doesn't apply to his new issues. Last year, Democrats had strong incentive to cut a deal because soaring workers' compensation insurance rates had been causing problems for business owners around the state for years.
"Everyone seemed to agree that there had to be change," said Assemblyman Juan Vargas, D-San Diego, who played a key role in drafting the package.
That's not the case this time around, especially regarding the spending-limit initiative.
The Education Coalition says the initiative will slash billions from the guarantee for schools and give the governor extraordinary power to make further cuts.
"He comes up with something that says we're going to cut education. That right there starts a holy war," Vargas said.
Even some Republicans say Schwarzenegger's program lacks strong support. Assemblyman George Plescia, R-San Diego, said he's not getting much pressure from constituents. "The issues are a little more vague," he said. "It was a little more real with workers' comp issues."
A rush job?
Some Democrats and Republicans agree that the initiatives were not well thought out.
When measures large and small wend their way through the Legislature, the pace is slow and they can get picked apart. The advantage of that is flaws are often identified through public hearings.
That hasn't happened with Schwarzenegger-backed initiatives. Unlike legislation, ballot measures can't be changed once they're launched.
"You don't just rush things to the ballot," said analyst Tony Quinn, co-editor of the Target Book
, which analyzes California politics.
Schwarzenegger's efforts were further hampered initially by election laws that required him to give control of the initiative campaign to his business allies.
Schwarzenegger was caught off guard last month by a huge flaw in the initiative to shift pensions for new state and local government employees to 401(k)-style plans: The proposal appeared to take away death and disability benefits for families of slain peace officers.
In the face of outcry from families of deceased officers and crime victims, he dropped the initiative.
Meanwhile, Democrats have been highlighting what they believe to be more populist issues, including more funding for transportation and higher education, and cheaper prescription drugs.
Teachers, school administrators, nurses and crime victims have proved to be effective foes against the governor. A poll by the Public Policy Institute of California last week showed that Schwarzenegger's approval rating dropped from 60 percent in January to 40 percent in April.
Schwarzenegger spokesman Stutzman said tough opposition was expected.
"If special interests weren't upset, then it wouldn't be reform worth doing," he said.
But while many politicians often have sophomore slumps, few saw that coming after Schwarzenegger's All-Star rookie season. "What's astounded me is that he's lost focus," said Sragow, the Democratic consultant. "You can't fight a multifront war."