Departures October 2010

Judgment Day

How Arnold Schwarzenegger might just have saved California
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Arnold Schwarzenegger looked worried. “Are you sure it’s okay to smoke out here?” he asked a waiter. “Oh sure, sure. Go ahead,” he was told. Passersby were beginning to mill near the patio of Bobby Van’s, a Washington, D.C., power trough, and snap pictures. Schwarzenegger was in Washington to lobby the Obama administration to pay Medicare money that California feels it is owed, and after his staff had offered me a cigar, he was holding forth on the slog of upcoming budget negotiations with Democrats in Sacramento.

When Schwarzenegger leaves office in January after seven tumultuous years as governor, it will not be with high marks. “Pretty pathetic,” wrote George Skelton, the dean of the Sacramento press corps; “opportunity squandered.” Schwarzenegger will be lucky if his approval rating is near 40 percent and the state budget deficit is less than $15 billion.

But Schwarzenegger’s greatest accomplishments may not yet be apparent: if the political reforms he pushed through take hold, he will have managed not only to restore California’s role as a policy innovator, but also to create the kind of political space that can incubate a future cadre of mini-Arnolds.

When Schwarzenegger took office, much of California’s governing structure struck him as bizarre. He didn’t understand why an engineers union of 13,000 members had so much say over transportation spending for 36 million Californians. He was bewildered that Republicans seemed to be afraid of radio shock jocks in Orange County, and that Democrats had to get permission from labor unions before they agreed to minor reforms in the budget. He’s still confused (“Oh my God, it’s unbelievable”) as to why a school can’t hire a local handyman to fix a broken door and instead must wait for a union repairman to come around.

Despite rookie missteps and setbacks, Schwarzenegger stuck with his crusade to reform California’s ossified political culture. He has begun to break the will of the powerful labor establishment, itself the author of many laws, through sheer relentlessness: after the corrections-officers union blocked one of his efforts to curb their power, Schwarzenegger all but called the members out as thugs and, in an unprecedented display of executive authority, voided their contract, then beat back the legislature’s attempt to reverse him. Though public-employees unions defeated his ballot reforms, Schwarzenegger extracted significant concessions on pensions from some of them. And drawing on his network of supporters and allies, Schwarzenegger financed and co-sponsored two successful ballot initiatives to end partisan gerrymandering and to institute a top-two selection system for partisan primaries. From now on, California’s elections for state executive and legislative posts will be contests between the top two primary vote-getters, regardless of party.

Previously, California’s gerrymandered districts rewarded fealty to entrenched partisan factions. As a result, few Republicans would ever vote for a tax hike and almost no Democrat would take on the unions. Redistricting will recast many legislative districts, making them significantly less Democratic or Republican. And candidates running in a wide-open primary will have to rely on a broader base of contributors. The power of the unions, the shock jocks, the anti-taxers, will all be diluted.

How did Schwarzenegger achieve these potentially far-reaching political changes? The standard answer is that he made it up as he went along, leveraging celebrity (his own and that of the Kennedys via his marriage to Maria Shriver, daughter of Sargent Shriver) and then fashioning political compromises. He lurched left and right. But there’s a simpler explanation: when you speak to Schwarzenegger, you realize he lacks the crippling desire to be liked that most politicians unctuously exude. And indeed, after he pushed and pushed and pushed, after he threatened to cut out the bottom of California’s social safety net, after unions spent millions of dollars demonizing him, he isn’t very well liked.

But he couldn’t care less, because his political ambition ended at the doorstep to the tent he set up as a makeshift smoke shack/negotiation chamber outside the Capitol. He can’t run for president, and he’s not interested in a Senate seat. “I was always much more free,” Schwarzenegger told me. “I was not feeling like there was a line in the sand, and everything that is to the right is everything that I should do, and everything to the left I should reject.” One clever bit of line-crossing that stunned Sacramento: his hiring of Chief of Staff Susan Kennedy, a Democratic operative who had worked for his predecessor, Gray Davis. When Schwarzenegger addressed Republicans after appointing Kennedy, a Republican assemblywoman he knew, Bonnie Garcia, teased him: “That’s not bipartisan, that’s bipolar!” Schwarzenegger didn’t care. In fact, if the Democratic candidate, Jerry Brown, becomes governor and takes credit for Schwarzenegger’s investment in solar power, he told me, it won’t bruise his ego. “The less you’re concerned about getting credit, the more work you can get done,” Schwarzenegger said. “My father-in-law always told me that.”

In truth, Schwarzenegger’s positions mirror the values of the California electorate: bullishly progressive on the environment, moderate with a strong libertarian streak on social issues, tough on law and order, and conservative on fiscal issues. Famous pockets like Orange County and Berkeley aside, Californians aren’t nearly as divided into liberal cities and conservative towns as people think. A large number of voters live in the suburbs or in small cities along the coast, or in the Central Valley (Schwarzenegger refers to this area as the state’s abdominals—the place that holds the rest of the body politic together). Think of soccer moms who recycle plastic bags and don’t want their car taxes raised.

Once he’s out of office, he fully expects his successor to try to undo some of what he did. But don’t expect the gay-friendly, self-mocking “governator” to go all girlie-man. He plans to counterattack with the same well-funded political machine, his “California Dream Team,” backed by a motley collection of Hollywood buddies and business interests, that he tapped in 2004 to bolster his initiative campaigns from outside the government. “You fight for it relentlessly to get it done, and then you have to fight for it to keep it,” he told me. “You should never imagine that when my office finishes, I finish.”

Marc Ambinder is The Atlantic’s politics editor.
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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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