On the day after the recall election, a couple of my more politically-involved friends asked—in no small state of befuddlement—how Californians could simultaneously overwhelmingly defeat Proposition 54 and elect Arnold Schwarzenegger governor.
The answer, I suspect, is that the defeat of Mr. Connerly’s 54 is not so liberal an event as progressives might hope, and, at the same time, Mr. Schwarzenegger’s election is not quite the hard-right mandate as our conservative friends would now have us believe. California, like the country, remains delicately—some might say precariously—balanced right on the middle of the political spectrum.
Figuring out the Prop. 54 side of it is easy. More than anything else, the get-the-government-out-of-the-business-of-cataloguing-by-race initiative lost on the argument that its passage would undercut medical research and treatment. Neither the left nor the right has a monopoly on that concern.
The rapid elevation of Mr. Schwarzenegger to the governorship is more difficult for progressives and liberals to fathom. The major problem, I believe, is that many progressives and liberals looked at Schwarzenegger’s candidacy through the fog of the right-wing coup theory, the belief that the recall election was merely a continuation of a recent string of radical conservative attempts to nullify the will of the voters. Thus, the original sin theory of many of my progressive-liberal friends: Since Schwarzenegger came to the governorship through the unholy vessel of the hard-right recall, his victory signals a sharp turn to the right in California politics.
That theory assumes we were somewhere to the left during the regime of Gray Davis, evidence of which is somewhat thin, even after five years’ observation.
But it also assumes that that those Californians who voted for Mr. Schwarzenegger did so on the belief that he will advance the right-wing cause. If that is their belief, it came about with little or no help from Mr. Schwarzenegger himself.
In fact, the brilliance of Mr. Schwarzenegger’s campaign was that he managed to get himself elected without promising much of anything at all, or revealing much of anything that he intends to do in his three years of stewardship. But like the folks back home—my Southern home—used to say, the same thing make you laugh, make you cry. That which allowed Mr. Schwarzenegger to roll to victory will now present his greatest difficulty as he sets about trying to govern.
During the campaign, Mr. Schwarzenegger presented himself as a blank screen upon which the voters were allowed to pretty much project their own thoughts about his agenda. About his platform there could be little argument. No new taxes, unless a fiscal crisis absolutely mandated them. Cut government inefficiency. Bring jobs back to the state. Protect education. Close your eyes, alter the accent just a bit, and you can easily imagine those same promises coming equally from Gray Davis, Cruz Bustamante, Arianna Huffington, Peter Camejo, and (if you leave out the “unless fiscal crisis” caveat), Tom McClintock. Mr. Schwarz-enegger painted in broad strokes...we were left to fill in the details of implementation ourselves, to our own particular fancies. But as they also say, the devil is in the details.
Mr. Schwarzenegger’s first bit of difficulty will come—and come quite soon—with the car tax increase, which he loudly promised to repeal.
If he manages to rescind the car tax increase, he must immediately come up with some $4 billion to shore up the resulting leak in the budget, or else make the appropriate cuts to a budget already reeling and out of balance.
There has been some talk that Mr. Schwarzenegger intends to try to make up a portion of that amount from Indian gambling interests. Under the deal being talked about in the press this week, the Indian gambling folks would give the state $1 billion in return for the right to expand their casino operations in the state. An odd twist, here. During the campaign, Mr. Schwarzenegger (also loudly) criticized Mr. Bustamante for taking campaign contributions from the Indian gambling interests. And why were the Indian gambling interests giving so much money to Mr. Bustamante? Because if he were elected governor, it was their hope that the present Lieutenant Governor would allow them to—guess what?—expand their casino operations in the state. Oh, yes, it’s going to be fun listening to the explanation on this one. And that still leaves $3 billion left to go.
And besides the math problem, Mr. Schwarzenegger cannot afford to fail on the car tax. Not the Last Action Hero. Bill Clinton flubbed on health care reform in the first days of his presidency, and his presidency survived and even prospered thereafter. Mr. Schwarzenegger does not have that luxury. He came to us as the movie idol who parachutes into the Colombian jungles, wipes out the cartel army with homemade weapons, and brings out his kidnapped daughter, unharmed. Many California voters—knowing nothing of the man except what they have seen in his movies—expect such miracles, and will be dearly disappointed in anything less. How can the man who whipped the seven-foot alien Predator not take down the stoop-shouldered, professorial John Vasconcellos?
With every step—or misstep, as it were—Mr. Schwarzenegger risks a significant portion of his recall majority. From here on down, as Pogo used to say, it’s uphill all the way. This may be more interesting than you think.