Ballot-Box Poison

Arnold Schwarzenegger declared war on special interests. So far, the special interests are winning.

Los Angeles—Think President Bush's situation looks bad? Things look even worse for California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. A poll taken in August by the Public Policy Institute of California showed Bush's job-approval rating in California at 38 percent. That's bad. Schwarzenegger's approval rating: 34 percent. That's worse.

We know what Bush's problems are: the war in Iraq, gasoline prices, and disaster management. Schwarzenegger's problems are less obvious, but they all cropped up this year. In the PPIC poll, Schwarzenegger dropped from 60 percent approval in January to 34 in August. What went wrong? It began with the governor's State of the State address on January 5, when Schwarzenegger announced California's "Year of Reform." The governor declared war on the special interests: "Ignore the lobbyists. Ignore the politics. Trust the people."

Schwarzenegger predicted that the special interests would fight back. "We all know what's going to happen," he said in January. "The special interests will run TV ads calling me cruel and heartless. They will organize protests out in front of the Capitol.

They will try to say I don't understand the consequences of these decisions."

That is exactly what happened. But who would have predicted that by the end of the summer—once California voters became aware of the difference between the governor they had thought they were electing and the governor they actually got—the interest groups would be winning?

Schwarzenegger was elected in 2003 as a uniter. This year, however, he picked fights. Worse, he picked too many fights at the same time. And he picked them with the wrong people: nurses, teachers, firefighters, and police officers. Schwarzenegger was elected as an outsider, someone not beholden to special interests, but he has spent a lot of time raising money from Big Business. Schwarzenegger's campaign committees reported spending $26 million in the first half of this year. And what did he get for it? Job approval at 34 percent.

Schwarzenegger was elected as a nonpolitician, but he looks more and more political. What's worse for his ratings is that he's a Republican politician in a deep-blue state. Worse yet, he's a Bush supporter in a state where Bush has never been popular. A lot of Californians fault Bush for starting the Iraq war. They blame Schwarzenegger for starting a different war—a political one. "He was going to stop business as usual, stop the bickering," San Francisco Chronicle columnist Phil Matier said. "Instead, he's pulled out a script that's done just the reverse."

Schwarzenegger's battlefield is the special election he called for this November. He's asking California voters to pass three measures he calls "reform initiatives." One would make it tougher for teachers to get tenure. California voters are split over that—49 percent in favor, 42 percent opposed in the PPIC poll—even though the poll indicates that most voters consider poor teacher performance a problem.

Another would take the power to draw legislative district boundaries away from elected officials. California voters oppose that, 49 percent to 34 percent, even though they think an independent panel of retired judges would draw fairer lines.

A third measure would limit state spending and give the governor more power over the budget. California voters overwhelmingly oppose that (68 percent to 21 percent), even though they consider state spending an important problem. In a late-August Field poll, 57 percent of California voters said they wanted the governor to cancel the special election.

The special election is turning into a referendum on the governor. "Redistricting, teacher tenure, living within our means—they're selling well with the voters," Matier said. "We've got a good script here. But what's our star vehicle? Arnold! Say that and, all of a sudden, support drops off."

Schwarzenegger told a radio interviewer that he's not bothered by the polls. "I had a choice a year ago," he said on KFBK in Sacramento. "Do I want to continue enjoying my 70 percent popularity rating and keep quiet and not create the reforms we need, and not rattle the cage and upset the status quo? Or do I really want to keep my promises?" In other words, Schwarzenegger is spending his political capital on a special election, the way Bush is spending his on Iraq.

What explains Schwarzenegger's sudden lurch to the right? He has never been particularly ideological. He sold himself to California voters as a moderate. He is not a professional politician. He is constitutionally ineligible to run for president. And he's rich, so it doesn't make much sense to say he's doing it for the money.

One of Schwarzenegger's harshest critics is fellow actor Warren Beatty, who told a convention of California nurses last week, "A Schwarzenegger Republican is a Bush Republican who says he's a Schwarzenegger Republican." Beatty said he had long puzzled over Schwarzenegger's motivation: "I was unable to decipher what his politics really were. He never seemed to want to talk about that."

Familiar with the self-absorbed world of Hollywood, Beatty told the nurses, "It brought to mind an admonition from T.S. Eliot that I have often cautioned myself with. Eliot wrote, 'Half of the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don't mean to do harm. But the harm does not interest them.' "

Call it the Hollywood explanation: It's all about ego.