(Centennial Fellow) The state’s Democratic legislators were “girlie men,” Arnold Schwarzenegger stated early in his tenure as governor of California, and you had to laugh and even applaud, because here was a popular, muscular action hero of the movies taunting opponents who really did seem politically sissified. The laughs and applause for that and more are over now. It’s parking ticket time.
The meter–maid story out of Los Angeles came a day after Jerry Brown replaced the fading star as chief of a state where everything has gone wrong. The cost of living is a killer. Business taxes and regulation are insufferable. The $28 billion deficit is bone crushing. The credit rating is the lowest in the union. The unemployment statistics are 12.2 percent. Unsurprisingly, Schwarzenegger’s approval rating is at the bottom of the barrel, and then comes this further symbol of how far he has fallen: a citation for leaving his Mercedes several hours in a five–minute passenger loading zone.
Chances are he will not now join those record numbers of residents and business firms fleeing this currently disintegrating state, but he would be less than human if he never brooded over sadly dissolved glory moments.
An Austrian–born immigrant with nothing but success in America, he came to gubernatorial power full of ebullience and good, big ideas to make some things smaller, such as bloated budgets. Soon enough there was widespread, eager national discussion of changing the U.S. Constitution so non–native citizens could serve as president.
What went wrong? Maybe too much swagger and too little experience were part of it. When alliance might have helped, he courted alienation. While Democratic legislators were indeed “girlie” about confronting dominant interests, they were not so wimpy about standing up to an insulting Republican governor.
Those interests—including rapacious public employee unions—hit back every bit as hard as the legislators, helping to assure the defeat of ballot propositions Schwarzenegger sought in order to save school children from teacher tenure, quality of life from sate–spending madness and other noble ends from other stupidities.
The governor, it’s said in one assessment, could himself scurry when the going got tough: He aimed to rid the government of billions of dollars worth of boards and commissions needed for nothing but patronage, ran into tough resistance, and then bounced in other directions.
He was a reckless borrower, a budget trickster and an advocate of the showy but unaffordable, reviews of his administration show. The longer he was around, the more he took walks on the wrong side, although some give him credit for his global warming initiative and a legislative redistricting plan.
Boo to the warming program. It’s wasted money. Leave out the other states, China, India, Africa, Europe—all the rest of the world—and you get nowhere on climate. You would do as much good spending the money on a voodoo dance to cure cancer. This is a feel–good superstition, though the redistricting plan is not. It is a means of getting legislative districts that are ideologically balanced instead of so far left or right that you end up with firebrand representatives unlikely under any circumstances to negotiate their way toward sensible governance.
In his failures, Schwarzenegger had other culprit company besides these warring factions demanding unconditional surrender of each other. Referenda zaniness created unmanageable predicaments and the recession was death to revenues, as just two examples.
My own sense of him is that the ex–governor is a decent, well–meaning man, which is not the same as saying he was particularly well equipped for the job or as consistently clear–eyed and true to his early pledges as anything beyond minimal success required.
His story, though in many ways remarkable, has ended worse than poorly for the people of California and is not so badly summed up by a fine he must now pay for having stayed in the wrong place for too long a time.
Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado and a Centennial Institute Fellow. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay@aol.com.