Last week, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger came to Washington on a promotional tour, just as he used to do for his movies. This time, he was promoting his state, pressing the federal government to spend more in California, just as he promised to do while campaigning for office in 2003. "By the time I'm through with this whole thing," he told Larry King in September 2003, "I will not be known as 'The Terminator.' I will be known as 'The Collectinator.' "
California has 53 members of Congress, one-eighth of the House. They're intensely divided by party. California Democrats are about as liberal as New York Democrats, and California Republicans are about as conservative as Texas Republicans. California has very few New York-style Republicans (moderate) or Texas-style Democrats (moderate).
Yet Schwarzenegger wants the delegation to do something it has rarely done—unite around the interests of California. "I'm the governor of the state of California," he said after meeting with the delegation in Washington last week. "Therefore, it's really up to me to bring the delegation together."
Unity is crucial for Schwarzenegger's political survival. He's the Republican governor of a strongly Democratic state. And his Democratic support has been slipping. He's taken on the state's teachers and nurses over work rules and pension plans. They're fighting back, with ads like one by the California Nurses Association that shows him publicly denouncing protesting nurses as "the special interests." A nurse in the ad responds, "He referred to us as a special-interest group ... that's very insulting."
The Democratic Party's new national chairman has set his sights on Schwarzenegger. Howard Dean told activists this month, "We have to make sure that Governor Schwarzenegger gets terminated."
In a January poll by the Public Policy Institute of California, Schwarzenegger had a 60 percent job-approval rating among all Californians. Among Democrats, however, his rating tilted negative (43 percent approved; 49 percent disapproved).
Schwarzenegger cannot survive in California as a partisan—hence, his unity strategy. It's a positive unity, to promote the interests of California, but also a negative unity. "We'll be against the politics as usual," Schwarzenegger declared last month. "It will be reform and changes versus the status quo and the special interests."
That's part of his explanation for championing a redistricting measure that threatens virtually every state legislator and every member of the California delegation in the U.S. House. The measure has the potential to create a nationwide political revolution, if Schwarzenegger can get voters interested in it and supportive of it.
"When you talk about political lines being drawn," said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., an early champion of the measure, voters' "eyes glaze over and they fall asleep, because they don't understand the importance of this."
Schwarzenegger certainly does. "One hundred and fifty-three congressional and [state] legislative districts in California were up for re-election this November," he told an interviewer. "None of them changed parties. What kind of a democracy is that?"
The governor advocates a ballot initiative this year that would take the drawing of district lines out of the hands of politicians and turn it over to a bipartisan panel of retired judges. How revolutionary is that? The measure says, "No data regarding the residence of an incumbent ... or the party affiliation or voting history of electors may be used in the preparation of plans."
An entire industry has emerged that uses exactly those kinds of data to draw district lines like the ones for California's 23rd Congressional District. That district snakes along the coastline for 200 miles, crossing county and city lines, picking up voters from six different media markets. Why? To gather enough Democrats to protect the Democratic incumbent.
Nunes observed, "When you won an election in 2002, you essentially got a 10-year term."
In California, Democrats drew district lines to freeze their majority in place. They bought off the Republican minority by making sure that it, too, got safe districts. That wheeling and dealing made Nunes mad in 2002 when he first ran for Congress. "You have Republicans who sold their vote out to carve districts for themselves," he charged.
Nunes has not made many friends by campaigning on the redistricting issue. "When I first started talking about this, everyone thought I was out to lunch," Nunes says. Have things changed? Only four of California's 20 congressional Republicans have endorsed the redistricting measure.
But Nunes has one powerful ally, the governor. "Whenever you see both parties disagree with something," Schwarzenegger said, "then you know you're onto something really good." How does he expect to overcome resistance? With a promotional tour. "You will see me at Costcos," Schwarzenegger said. "You will see me at different shopping malls, and I will be out there gathering the signatures and making sure we get [this] on the ballot." He's fighting partisanship with populism.
The redistricting measure threatens the Democratic majorities in the California Legislature and in the state's U.S. House delegation. If it catches fire nationwide, it could threaten the Republican majority in the House.
And it could threaten incumbents everywhere by forcing them to face real competition. That's called democracy.