Back to the center

Arnold won’t be pointlessly drubbing the Democrats, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be popular

On Friday the 13th, it occurred to me that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who just released his annual budget plan—along with a massive bond proposal to fix California’s decayed infrastructure—must be realizing that luck is not exactly with him.

The 13th was the day newspapers reported Schwarzenegger had decided to bail out the feds using $70 million from California taxpayers. This king’s ransom will be spent in the next two weeks to repair the disastrous January 1 launch, in California, of the new federal Medicare prescription-drug program.

Apparently, so many poor people were switched to the federally funded program at once on January 1 that the program suffered a mini-meltdown in many states. In California alone, 200,000 elderly and poor were in danger of being denied medicine, so Arnold acted to avert possible tragedies. The immediate price tag here is $70 million, but it’s anybody’s guess if that’s where the buck stops.

The specter of California bailing out the feds was an ironic cap to a week in which Schwarzenegger simply could not win for doing the right thing.

A few days earlier, he released a politically centrist budget that did not raise taxes but did restore $1.7 billion the state owes to schools—the most emotional political issue in California in 2005.

In reward for his sensible budget, he was maligned for spending too much, spending too little, taxing the wrong people, taxing too much, taxing too little and funding the wrong things.

He was even taken to task by the nonpartisan Chief Legislative Analyst Elizabeth Hill, whose off-base comments sounded like her withering reviews of the awful budgets dreamed up by former Governor Gray Davis.

After all, Davis was busily spending California into a $25 billion hole, while Arnold’s plan achieves what politicians call “a slowing rate” of overspending. It’s not too inspiring, but it typifies Schwarzenegger’s strategy to reduce growth until the deficit gradually fades into oblivion.

The Democrats are acting horrified by his plans to spend an extra $300 million on specific policies and programs. Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, the most powerful Democrat in Sacramento, complained that the governor was proposing “more spending” than even the Democrats. Humorous.

For their part, Republicans were up in arms about his massive proposed bond-measure package. It would spend an eye-popping $222 billion on decaying roads, levees, reservoirs and other infrastructure that cannot withstand a major disaster—or even a whole lot more wear and tear.

The message I take from these past several days of hammering on Arnold is that while a lot of us are happy he is no longer pointlessly drubbing the Democrats, it doesn’t mean he’ll be rewarded for governing as the rational centrist he was elected to be.

“The governor knows that voters really want to see that money go back to the schools,” Department of Finance spokesman H.D. Palmer told me the other day. “He’s still a fiscal conservative, but he also heard their message.”

It is the awful fate of centrists that they never make any of the loudest and most manipulative voices happy.

Sure we need to shore up the thousands of miles of locally controlled levees in California whose conditions are unknown, substandard or in dispute (gulp). But no bused-in crowds of union workers will jeer the governor at his next public appearance if he consistently fails to address infrastructure.

Yet, it’s precisely the sort of thing a centrist governor really cares about. As Palmer quipped to me, “I think it’s Texas where they say the only thing in the middle of the road is a yellow line and dead armadillos.”

Centrists are a rare breed in politics because luck is against them—at all times. The tectonic plates in politics are greased by emotion, anger, battles, blame and narrow constituency groups who drive it all.

Still, the governor seems vigorously committed to his centrism in 2005. As Palmer notes, the governor proposed roughly $300 million in extra spending to pursue a variety of serious issues, including $55 million to prepare California to deal with a flu pandemic, to secure the food supply and to prepare for other threats.

In addition, Palmer says, the governor is proposing that Proposition 42 transportation funds (which were raided by the Legislature to cover its gross overspending) be partially repaid—$920 million to communities where voters who backed Proposition 42 might finally see transportation projects built.

Getting ready for a flu pandemic, restoring transportation funds, focusing on infrastructure and paying back the schools?

What about tax cuts, identity politics, gay marriage, illegal immigrants or the other favorites of the constituency groups? Nope, Schwarzenegger has decided to be dull, centrist—and responsible. Thus, the outrage has only just begun.