Governor Still Doesn’t Get the Real Message: ‘Shape up, Arnold’

In the last month, he’s seen his version of

reform

roundly rejected by California voters and been mobbed by adoring
crowds in China who know him more as a movie muscleman than a
politician.
In the last month, he’s seen his version of “reform” roundly rejected by California voters and been mobbed by adoring crowds in China who know him more as a movie muscleman than a politician.

But everything Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has done since the special election he now says he never should have called shows him to be a hybrid of the two: a muscle-headed politician.

For it is now plain the governor just doesn’t get it. Trying to explain away the resounding defeat of all his ballot propositions, Schwarzenegger and his aides keep saying the results mean the voters want him and the Legislature to work together and not ask ordinary citizens to resolve problems via the initiative process.

Sure, most Californians would say it would be nice if politicians figured out a way to coexist peacefully. But next year is an election year, so no one really expects that to happen soon.

So “work together!” could not have been what most voters were thinking as they cast ballots against Schwarzenegger’s propositions. While no one knows for sure because there was no serious exit polling, the vote on one of those propositions – 76 – came as close to being a referendum on Schwarzenegger himself as you can get, short of his name being on the ballot next fall.

The decision on Proposition 76 was all about whether voters trusted the governor. By sponsoring the measure, Schwarzenegger sought unilateral power to cut state spending in mid-year whenever he deemed a financial crisis might be imminent. In effect, he was asking voters to leave it all up to him.

By an overwhelming 62.5-37.5 percent margin, they said they do not trust him that much. Those numbers matched almost exactly the job approval and disapproval ratings public polls found Schwarzenegger getting in the weeks before the election.

So the message really was “Shape up, Arnold.”

And since the vote, Schwarzenegger has given Californians little reason to think they should trust him more. If they don’t trust him, it is probably because he’s taken more than twice as much political money as his ousted predecessor Gray Davis ever did, all the while strictly toeing the policy lines of his big donors. Since almost all his donations come from corporations and their executives, it’s been a bit like having the head of the big business lobby in the governor’s chair.

If, as polls at the time showed, Davis was dumped largely because voters believed he sold public policy for campaign donations, voters have become disillusioned with Schwarzenegger because they think he’s done the same, only more. And all this after he bragged he would never need to take any campaign donations at all.

So what does Arnold do immediately after saying he takes “full responsibility” for calling an election that changed nothing, but cost taxpayers at least $50 million? He didn’t offer to reimburse the state even a cent for its expenses, which would truly be accepting responsibility, as letter-writers to several newspapers suggested.

Rather, he took off for China along with leaders of 75 corporations that donated a total of $3.4 million to his campaigns. And rather than reveal who paid for the trip, he listed only a vaguely-named committee as the sponsor. That committee is under no legal obligation to reveal its funders.

Which means Schwarzenegger didn’t learn a thing. It also means he still thinks he can slide by on charisma, without having to be honest with voters about who’s really behind him.

That may have been true in his first year, when his popularity and approval ratings rose above 70 percent. It may still be true in China. But not here, not any more.

“Unfortunately, the damage has been done to this governor'” said Roger Salazar, a Democratic consultant who worked against Schwarzenegger’s fall propositions.

Whether he’s damaged beyond repair is still not clear, and for sure, a lot of what happens in his reelection campaign next year will depend on who the Democrats put up against him.

But one thing seems certain: Right now, the governor simply doesn’t understand what happened to his political fortunes and why.

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