Archive for Sunday, March 27, 2005

Schwarzenegger hasn’t lost his swagger

March 27, 2005


— Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger says he brought with him to government from the world of competitive body-building a belief in what "they used to call the third eye -- when you see things as a finished product way before it happens."

In an interview with Washington Post reporter Dan Balz and me last week, he said that when he was on stage with 10 other muscular guys, "I was never worried or never kind of rattled," because he knew the judges would pick the one "who has the mind of the winner, who (says) ... I deserve to be the winner because I am the best. ... It's a very calming feeling ... knowing that you're on the right track and that all (it is) is just a matter of time and the effort."

The same sublime confidence that carried the Austrian immigrant to success in body-building and in Hollywood action films has transferred to politics, where he ousted incumbent Gov. Gray Davis in a recall election and sailed through his first year in office on a wave of celebrity adulation.

But now the Republican governor has challenged the Democratic Legislature and a powerful array of public-sector unions to a showdown over the basic structure of California government. It will largely determine the future direction of this mega-state and have ripple effects on politics across the country.

Still mired in inherited deficits, despite robust economic growth, Schwarzenegger opted in his January state of the state speech to move beyond his narrow focus on the budget and challenge the status quo on many fronts simultaneously.

He proposed shifting control of reapportionment of legislative and congressional districts from the Legislature to a panel of retired judges, a move he said would force accountability on currently unchallenged lawmakers. He called for tough new spending caps that would automatically reduce expenditures to fit within available revenues.

He said he would break the lock voters had placed on a major share of future taxes when they earmarked them for schools. He said he would toughen teacher tenure requirements and institute merit pay for outstanding educators. He said he would postpone or eliminate requirements for hiring more nurses in state hospitals.

And, in an echo of President Bush's proposed Social Security reforms, he said he would shift the pension system for public employees from one of guaranteed benefits to one where market forces would determine how big a nest egg they enjoyed on retirement day.

To give force to his proposals, Schwarzenegger announced in advance that if the Legislature balked, he would take these constitutional changes directly to the voters in a series of initiatives in a special election this fall.

So far, Democrats have shown no signs of acquiescing -- or even negotiating seriously on any of these fronts. Schwarzenegger has launched a campaign to collect business contributions to pay for multimillion-dollar initiative campaigns, and the unions are preparing to fight him with a series of populist initiatives of their own.

A month remains in which to negotiate compromises on some or all of these issues, but the political climate in Sacramento last week was as chilly as the unseasonable weather.

Leaders of unions representing nurses, teachers and service employees denounced Schwarz-enegger in interviews as a "right-wing ideologue" who has broken his word repeatedly. Gale Kaufman, the veteran political operative handling the unions' counterattack, claims that focus groups and polls show Schwarzenegger is riding for a fall. His attacks on teachers and nurses as "special interests" have backfired, while his corporate fund raising has tagged him as a servant of big business. His agenda is anything but popular, she says. Voters care about crowded schools and gridlocked roads and expensive drugs -- not pensions and reapportionment.

She points out that Schwarz-enegger failed to defeat any of the targeted Democratic legislators last November, when his popularity was higher than it is now.

On the other hand, the governor won every initiative fight in which he took part last year, and Democrats have no one with his star power to make the case against his program or rebut his claim that they are simply defending an unaffordable status quo.

Many students of California government say structural reforms are needed, but fault Schwarzenegger for not following the example of Republican predecessors Ronald Reagan and Pete Wilson and seeking small tax increases in order to balance the budget. But Schwarzenegger is scornful of that view and so far, Democrats have not been willing to run the political risk of advocating any tax hikes.

Meantime, the most relaxed and least fretful man in the capital is the body-builder who tells himself, "I deserve to be the winner because I am the best."

Until someone equally confident comes along to challenge him, the title is his.

-- David Broder is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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