In his new memoir, Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story, bodybuilder, businessman, movie star, and politician Arnold Schwarzenegger tries his hand as a critic, reviewing his own six-year stint as California governor. “We made a hell of a lot of progress, and we made a lot of history,” he exults. “Workers comp reforms, parole reforms, pension reforms, education reforms, welfare reforms, and budget reforms. . . . We made our state an international leader in climate change and renewable energy; a national leader in health care reform and the fight against obesity.” That’s quite a roster of accomplishments, but it falls well short of the truth.
Schwarzenegger is hardly the first politician to put a fine gloss on his time in public office, but the former governor’s attempts to chart his unalloyed success are neither believable nor complete. He positions himself as a latter-day Progressive. “We put in place the most significant political reforms since Hiram Johnson,” he writes, referring to the early-twentieth-century California governor. “And we accomplished all this while dealing with the greatest economic disaster since the Great Depression.” Well, not quite. Schwarzenegger’s best efforts at sweeping reform came well before the recession, when he still believed—in spite of all reason—that he could deal with the legislature and buck the public-employee unions. “I wasn’t familiar with the cast of characters in Sacramento,” Schwarzenegger admits. That is, he didn’t understand that the unions effectively run the place. He called for a “year of reform,” posed for photos with a broom, and promised to clean house. “I had declared war,” Schwarzenegger writes, “on the three most powerful public employee unions in the state: the prison guards, the teachers, the state employees.”
But the former action hero couldn’t take the heat. He retreated from reform and became a strategic ally of left-wing Democrats. For example, after Bay Area voters decided not to reelect State Senator Carole Migden, a do-you-know-who-I-am? Democrat whose antics included verbally abusing her own staff, Schwarzenegger appointed her to the state’s waste-management board at $132,000 a year. (This from the man who had once promised to “blow up the boxes”—the maze of boards and commissions that serve as soft landing spots for washed-up politicians.) Not a word about that appears in Total Recall, a book replete with politically correct boilerplate, such as “Republicans had been stupidly alienating women.” Which women—or which Republicans, for that matter—Schwarzenegger does not specify.
The Democrats were happy for Schwarzenegger’s help but less inclined to reciprocate with genuine compromise. Take the bipartisan Commission on the 21st Century Economy, which Schwarzenegger mandated by executive order. The commission recommended lowering the number of personal income-tax brackets from six to two, with a new tax rate of 2.75 percent for taxable income up to $56,000 and 6.5 percent for all taxable income above that amount. These changes would have reduced the amount of income tax that Californians paid by 29 percent. The corporate tax would have been eliminated, along with the general-purpose sales tax, and replaced by a business net-receipts tax capped at 4 percent. The commission also wanted the state’s “rainy day” reserve fund to get 12.5 percent of general-fund revenues, up from a current target of 5 percent, and it recommended restrictions on “the government’s ability to use reserve assets so that the reserve is available to help fund services during recessionary periods.” Implementing the commission’s recommendations would have helped California solve many of its financial problems, especially the feast-or-famine budget cycle. Democrat Karen Bass, the assembly speaker at the time, promised a vote on the proposals but failed to deliver.
So preservation of the status quo wasn’t entirely the governor’s fault, but it was the first of many disappointments in his tenure. Another involved embryonic stem-cell research. When the Bush administration failed to fund that research, Schwarzenegger backed Proposition 71, a 2004 initiative sponsored by real-estate tycoon Robert Klein II, a prominent Democrat. The measure promised to use $3 billion in bond money for embryonic stem-cell research that would turn California into a vast Lourdes, overflowing with miraculous cures for deadly diseases. Alas, Total Recall doesn’t mention that the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the state agency that Prop. 71 created, has spent most of its money without producing a single cure or therapy. And Schwarzenegger the self-described fiscal conservative fails to point out that CIRM remains off limits to state oversight and beset with conflicts of interest.
The former governor does recall former assembly speaker Fabian Núñez, a “smart ex-union leader” who would become “one of my closest allies among the Democrats.” The pair worked together on AB 32, the California Global Warming Solutions Act, which the former governor calls “our boldest policy leap.” He continues to claim, in the face of all evidence, that AB 32 is good for California’s economy. Though he doesn’t say so, Schwarzenegger’s relationship with the L.A. Democrat didn’t end there. In 2008, Núñez’s son Esteban was involved in the fatal stabbing of college student Luis Santos and eventually sentenced to 16 years in prison for manslaughter, avoiding a possible life sentence for murder. Núñez the elder tried to get the sentence reduced, but a judge refused. Not to worry, because on January 2, 2011, during his final hours as governor, Schwarzenegger commuted Esteban’s sentence to seven years. The governor failed to notify the victim’s family. “We are totally outraged,” Fred Santos, the victim’s father, told reporters. “For the governor to wait until the last day in hopes it would fly under the radar is an absolute injustice.” Judge Lloyd Connelly called the governor’s action “distasteful and repugnant.”
Now back in the movie business, Schwarzenegger laments the “absurdity of Sacramento” and of its legislature, which has “less turnover than in Austria’s Hapsburg monarchy.” But as his incomplete memoir makes clear, Arnold Schwarzenegger added several chapters of his own to the state’s absurdity.