The Rise and Fall of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger

On the Governator's last day in office, a look back at where he went wrong--and what he got right

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A year after being sworn-in as California's governor in 2003, Arnold Schwarzenegger's popularity was so great there was talk of a constitutional amendment so the GOP's Austrian-born action hero could run for president. The movement failed, which might have been just as well; Schwarzenegger leaves office today with an approval rating of 22 percent and a state budget deficit of $28 billion--hardly the kind of record that helps launch White House bids. So how does one square the reversal of Schwarzenegger's political fortunes with Marc Ambinder's assertion in the October issue of The Atlantic that the Governator's legislative victories "might have saved California"? From around the Web, a sampling of opinions on what one of America's most prominent politicians got wrong (and right) during his seven years in office:

  • Too Tough?  The movie star-turned-politician who "strutted into the state capital in Sacramento vowing to take down its special interests and blow up its bureaucracies," was ultimately derailed by the very veteran lawmakers he thought he would tame, notes Jim Christie of Reuters. Schwarzenegger's "early combativeness" with Democrats hindered subsequent attempts to reach across the aisle. More than anything, it seemed the novice politician failed to "appreciate how much he would need lawmakers as partners in hard times like the recent years and over the long haul," a fact that limited his ability to strike deals amidst the economic downturn.
  • Lasting Impact  NPR's Ina Jaffe says two of Schwarzenegger's efforts to end gridlock in Sacramento will have an impact on California politics for decades to come. "First," she writes, "legislative districts will now be drawn by an independent commission, instead of the legislature." Additionally, "all candidates in primary elections will run on a single ballot. The top two will make it to the runoff, even if they're both from the same party."
  • Out of His Hands  The Wall Street Journal's Stu Woo writes Schwarzenegger's centrism--once a major source of his appeal--alienated allies on both sides of the aisle when it came time to address the state's budget crunch. "Republicans reviled him for raising taxes. Democrats and social-welfare groups decried his spending cuts to education, and health and social programs." With no key constituency to defend his accomplishments, Schwarzenegger's legacy now relies on outside factors, specifically "whether incremental and unproven revisions to the state's electoral and fiscal systems pan out."
  • A Noble Effort  Writing in The Los Angeles Times, New America Foundation senior fellow Joe Matthews argues Schwarzenegger's governorship may well be judged as a success, thanks to his judicious use of the bully pulpit to outflank an intractable state legislature. It's this "fundamental dichotomy" that colors his entire administration. Matthews explains:
On matters in which Schwarzenegger had a healthy amount of control--orders he could execute with a pen, legislation that could pass with a simple majority of the Legislature, even ballot initiatives he could champion and pay for personally--the governor has much to brag about. He can point to landmark climate change legislation, bipartisan appointments made on merit, infrastructure bonds that represent a down payment on the rebuilding of California, workers' compensation reform and voter-approved political reforms to the redistricting process and primary election rules. ...

But on fiscal and budgetary matters, Schwarzenegger suffered defeat after defeat. The state's fiscal record after his seven years — California has the same budget deficit now as in 2003, with a much larger debt--has led commentators across the political spectrum to write him off as a failed governor. That conclusion has a factual basis--and is deeply wrong. And it obscures the most interesting and important lesson of his governorship. Put simply: The sheer number and surpassing scale of Schwarzenegger's failures to fix the state budget constitute a grand and peculiar success, especially if Californians heed the lessons they provide.
  • Disappointing  The Sacramento Bee's editorial board sees Schwarzenegger's tenure as a metaphor for California's decline over the past decade. He entered office with an ambitious agenda, "but like so many Californians of his time, he mortgaged his future--and the state's future--on the myth the economy of the Golden State would stay golden forever." While the paper concedes some of his legislation will end up helping Californians, his biggest impact might be as a cautionary tale--a reminder about "the consequences of depending on gimmicks and refusing to 'pay as you go'."
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