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Eye on the News

Steven Greenhut
The Acting Governor
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s forgettable legacy
21 January 2011

As Arnold Schwarzenegger stepped down as governor of California, he could behold two dispiriting sights: a state struggling with structural budget deficits, just as it had struggled when he marched into office as a conquering action hero, and an approval rate just 1 point higher than his disgraced and recalled predecessor’s. Schwarzenegger’s failed governorship—he did good and bad, of course, but he never accomplished his recall-driven task of taming the deficit—has elicited harsh criticism, especially from conservatives, who view him as something of a traitor. After all, he campaigned for office seven years ago by quoting the great free-market economist Milton Friedman, and the early Schwarzenegger championed a number of conservative issues, along with his avowed commitment to environmentalism and social moderation.

But no one who watched Schwarzenegger closely during the recall election of 2003 should be surprised that he turned out to be a phony reformer with only a talking-points commitment to Friedmanesque principles. On the campaign trail, the actor-turned-politician simply regurgitated those lines about Friedman, saying the same lines in the same way, with little or no elaboration on what they would mean for his governing philosophy. Yes, we believed that Schwarzenegger had tired of the socialism of his native Austria and was a believer in the marketplace, but he never gave any real indication that he thought the state government was too big and powerful.

The real tip-off that Schwarzenegger would not govern as a limited-government conservative had come a year earlier, in 2002, when he set the stage for his election by helping pass a statewide initiative that would earmark general-fund dollars for after-school programs. That year, my colleagues and I on the editorial board of the Orange County Register met with Schwarzenegger and county sheriff Mike Carona as they asked for support for Prop. 49. Schwarzenegger, who contributed $1 million of his own money to the initiative and who personally handed the secretary of state’s office the 750,000 signatures necessary to place the measure on the ballot, built his election on this success. Carona, riding the coattails, won a second term as sheriff.

Californian conservatives should have known better than to back an aspiring governor whose signature accomplishment was the passage of a deal dedicating tax dollars to particular government programs. But the only real concern I recall from Republican quarters involved Schwarzenegger’s views about social issues. Most activists figured that he was serious about the fiscal matters, and we were all frightened about the prospect of a split Republican vote between Schwarzenegger and conservative icon Tom McClintock, which would have thrown the governorship to Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante.

After being elected, Schwarzenegger did try to reform public employees’ pensions, change the tenure system for teachers, and impose a spending cap and other fiscal restrictions on the budgeting process. I met with McClintock (now a congressman from the Sacramento area) early in the Schwarzenegger regime and found him excited about the new governor’s path. But after Schwarzenegger called a special election in 2005 and watched his reform initiatives, which had been targeted by the unions, get clobbered at the polls, he essentially apologized to the public, saying that he had heard voters’ voices. President Bill Clinton famously embraced some conservative policies once the Republicans scored in the midterm elections; other politicians, including our current president, have been known to adjust strategy in response to electoral messages; but never has a major politician changed tack as radically as Schwarzenegger did. He became the green governor, a progressive who pushed for open primaries, a friend of the Democratic leadership, and a champion of “good governance.” Out went all the promises of fiscal responsibility. He even named as his chief of staff Susan Kennedy, who had served in the cabinet of the vanquished Gray Davis.

Arnold at his best was a Chamber of Commerce governor—a reliable veto of the worst job-killing bills that the Democratic legislature sent his way. Still, he reliably supported the biggest job-killer of all: the state’s anti-global-warming regulations. And for all his populist appeal, Schwarzenegger wasn’t really a populist. He usually sided with vested interests—big environmental groups, the Chamber, redevelopment agencies—against ordinary Californians seeking protection of their property and other rights. The final example came just before he left office, when he reduced the prison sentence to be served by former Democratic assembly speaker Fabian Nunez’s son Esteban, who had committed second-degree murder. Nunez had obviously received the break because his dad was part of the legislative club.

Soon afterward, as it happens, Mike Carona, the sheriff who had helped Schwarzenegger with Prop. 49, was told that he would have to begin a 66-month sentence that he received for witness-tampering during a 2008 federal corruption trial. The Carona story is complex and of mostly local significance, but it does serve as a reminder of the importance of looking closely at politicians’ reform plans and not being taken in by their charming personalities.

Speaking of politicians advocating reform, the prospect of real change in California remains dim under new governor Jerry Brown. I hope that Brown is more serious about change than Schwarzenegger was, and I’m encouraged by his welcome proposal to shut down the state’s revenue-sapping, corporate-welfare-laden redevelopment agencies. But he seems to be setting the stage for a series of initiatives that would ask Californians to raise their taxes—the alternative being the imposition of an austere budget that severely cuts back on social services. And the last thing increasingly uncompetitive California needs is even higher taxes.

As for Schwarzenegger, he was unquestionably a fascinating character as he rode into office. But in the end, he did very little that was unconventional. Did he ever have core beliefs? Or was he always just acting?

Steven Greenhut is the director of the Pacific Research Institute’s Journalism Center in Sacramento.

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