SACRAMENTO, CALIF. His political strength hemorrhaging from multiple wounds - some self-inflicted, others the result of a barrage of negative advertising - the governor, his job approval below 40 percent, is nevertheless ebullient. He cannot be pretending. He is not that good an actor.
Arnold Schwarzenegger - tanned, tan suit, open-collared shirt, running shoes - will run for re-election in 2006, but first, he says cheerfully, these next seven weeks will be "the rebuttal" to the ad assault from government employee unions. He wants voters to pass ballot measures to make teachers wait five rather than two years before achieving tenure, a lifetime job entitlement; to restrict the growth of government spending by giving governors greater latitude for cutting it; and to give a panel of retired judges power to draw legislative districts.
But he is a prisoner of the populism - government by gusts of manufactured public opinion - that propelled him to this city. None of his three proposals currently has the support of a majority of an electorate that is weary of elections. In just 34 months they have re-elected Gray Davis governor, recalled him and replaced him with Schwarzenegger, then selected 53 members of Congress and 100 state legislators in districts so meticulously gerrymandered to prevent change that party control remained unchanged in all 153 contests.
Schwarzenegger remains confident of his ability to mesmerize an audience, but this audience - the vast, distracted electorate - did not buy a ticket for this November's movie. It is being thrust at them, and he is not the antipolitical novelty he was when he was elected.
But if he imperfectly understands his problems, he does understand a large part of the state's. Asked what has most surprised him in the 23 months since he was elected, he instantly replies: "The extent to which public employees unions are running the state" and how "blatant" their control is. He disgustedly says that meetings with the teachers union are never about children, they are entirely about adults - about costing the state $300 million by ensuring that union workers will mow schools' lawns and fix schools' plumbing.
Government employees unions - government organized as an interest group - are a national problem. The Manhattan Institute's Steven Malanga writes in his book, "The New New Left: How American Politics Works Today," that although New York City has essentially the same size population it had 40 years ago, it has 30 percent more - 100,000 more - government employees. Recently the seven Democratic candidates for a city council seat included two members of the teachers union, a former school principal, two professors at a unionized city-run college, an employee of the city parks commission and an employee of a city-funded drug clinic. Whereas the Democratic Party's Tammany Hall "machine" in its salad days dispensed only a few thousand patronage jobs, today's government employees unions have much more organizational and financial muscle.
Schwarzenegger's autumn argument is: Many of life's defects that vex Californians and that government can ameliorate exist because "we're not building." Reform will mean fewer hours spent stalled on freeways in congealed traffic, fewer classrooms stuffed with 35 pupils and one bad teacher, etc. Unfortunately, his argument has two steps, which is one more than the public - inattentive until angry, and then often unreasonable - can usually assimilate. The steps are:
First, California cannot rebuild until it reforms. Second, this is because government spending will be profligate in pursuit of unwise priorities as long as the Legislature, secure in electoral districts it has drawn for itself, is insulated from all pressures other than those of public employees unions which can defeat uncooperative incumbents in the only elections that matter - nominating primaries.
Schwarzenegger has endorsed a fourth - and more popular - referendum measure that would require government employees unions to get individual members' permission before using a portion of their dues for political purposes. A similar measure, but not confined to government employees unions, was defeated in 1998 when opponents outspent proponents at least five to one. Today, California's government employees unions are conceding by their frenzied opposition their fear of members enjoying choice.
Politics is a learned craft and Schwarzenegger has made a raft of rookie mistakes, from rhetorical combativeness incompatible with his appeal as a non-party nonconformist, to enriching an army of consultants who are doing well out of his attempt to do good. Still, California's political system is dysfunctional, Schwarzenegger's opponents have no program other than to stall until he wearies of disturbing their peace, and his proposals, however artlessly pursued, are a start on creative disturbance.