It’s the budget, Arnold

You may get only one term if you don’t quit acting like a mean-spirited politician. Think Kindergarten Cop instead of The Terminator.

Dear Arnold,

I was driving on the Los Angeles freeway a couple of days ago, and I saw a billboard of you, as the Terminator, painted on a building near the 101. The image caused a stir when it appeared just before your election, but for the longest time it was unmarred.

Now, it’s scrawled with big loops of pale greenish graffiti. That, and your poll numbers, prompted me to jot down a few thoughts on how you can turn your administration around.

Three things:

First, your focus should be on getting a budget passed through the Legislature before mid-summer, which is when California voters start getting upset about missed deadlines.

Second, you need to find a new way to present yourself that isn’t so in-your-face. Remember when you made Twins and Kindergarten Cop so the ticket-buying public wouldn’t think of you only as a hulking killer? Something along those lines would be good.

Third, you can’t do either of those if you spend your time gearing up for a nasty special election this fall.

You’ve got too much on your plate, babe.

Let’s look at the need for a special election. Everybody knows, because of what Secretary of State Bruce McPherson said recently, that there’s no real reason to rush voters to the polls.

McPherson said it’s close to impossible to redraw all those gerrymandered voting districts before the 2006 election. It would take mainframe computers to split voters into new districts without watering down racial blocs and so on. Moreover, the new lines almost certainly would face lengthy court challenges.

Sure, you’ll get bad press if you abandon the special election. Newspapers will call you weak, Democratic leaders will crow, and all those millionaires pouring money into ballot measures will be in a snit.

But remember how Californians reacted when you went out and apologized to the women you groped? Voters hadn’t seen anything quite so honest from a politician. They forgave you. Admitting mistakes is a plus for you. And a special election in November is a mistake.

You should spend your energy elsewhere, like working closely with Democratic Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata to pass a speedy budget. And you should practice little talks in your mirror to be not quite so grating toward Democrats, who make up the voting majority in California.

Governors who plunge in the polls have a hard time recovering. But history shows that thoughtful governors can rebuild their street cred with the voters.

So, be thoughtful. One thing I would do—which I’ve suggested obliquely before—is to start releasing a running total of the number of Democrats you’ve appointed to high places and to California judgeships.

Most Californians have no idea that you’ve been putting your bipartisan money where your mouth is, by creating one of the most bipartisan administrations ever, plus awarding judgeships to quite a few Democrats.

That’s not PR or window dressing. That’s real. Your top political adviser, Mike Murphy, should help you put that information front and center.

Next, reach out to Perata, who has emerged as the most sensible Democrat in Sacramento. Sure, he recently said it was time to raise taxes, and you oppose new taxes. But Perata acknowledged how unpopular his idea was by immediately remarking, “There, I said it,” right after he called for more taxes.

Perata’s comments tell me three things. Sure, he wants to raise taxes. But what elected Democrat in Sacramento does not, besides brilliant problem-solver types like Assemblymen Joe Canciamilla of Pittsburg and Joe Nation of San Rafael? Second, Perata’s good in front of a microphone. He’s leaderly. Third, Perata cares how the public feels about taxes. That makes him rare.

This all means that Perata is the sort of person that a socially liberal, fiscally conservative Republican like you can work with. Find a way to hammer out a budget and regain your standing with voters. That’s more crucial than any special election.

Every week that you and the Democrats blow past the budget deadline, which comes up in a few weeks, you give fodder to critics to point out how you’re late again—just like that ineffective Gray Davis. You don’t need that kind of negative press. You need results.

Californians tend not to follow politics, and many don’t know the name of their congressional representative or the name of their state legislators. But the budget deadline is something people understand. When Sacramento ignores the deadline, it tells people that the politicians, once again, are not doing their most basic job.

This brings me to the question of your larger image. Governor, you need to try out some softer phrasing while speaking in public.

Partisan passions are surging through California. Much of the Democratic-controlled Legislature is quietly frosted that you campaigned for President Bush in Ohio last year. You can’t do anything about that. But when you publicly taunt legislators for their failings, you just twist the knife.

Isn’t it enough that California residents are well aware of how much nonsense the Legislature engages in? The Legislature enjoys an approval rating that hovers near 30 percent.

Yet, in your new TV commercial, running in major media markets, you ask voters to back your budget-capping reform law, headed for the ballot, because Sacramento legislators are incapable of fiscal responsibility.

Who doesn’t know that? That’s just so last year.

You’d be better off reassuring the public that you’re not just a flamethrower. Recently, you stood up with Democratic Senator Gloria Romero of Los Angeles and others to praise them for working with you to reform the prison system, which has long been among the worst in the nation.

How about highlighting the meaningful work of other Democrats more often? You were elected as a guy interested in good ideas rather than partisan warring. For example, you’ve already signed a raft of new laws written by Democrats this year.

Why be so quiet about it? How about some kudos? You needn’t send out for personalized satin jackets. Just offer genuine and very public thanks to Democratic authors of some of the more sensible bills you’ve been signing.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not one of those pundits who wants you to back off of reform or who whines that a special election in November “costs too much.”

In fact, I agree with most, but not all, of your reform plans. I agree, for example, that it’s absurd that teachers with just two years’ experience are awarded tenure. Most states would never permit such a thing, but California does a lot of things backward. Lemon teachers are protected by the two-year tenure rule, while promising but green teachers get tenure while still learning basics like how to control their class.

Nevertheless, there’s only one pressing issue that justifies a special election, and that’s state Finance Department czar Tom Campbell’s idea to enact a law allowing automatic, modest, across-the-board budget cuts in those years when the Legislature and governor can’t come to agreement.

But an across-the-board budget-cutting tool is not desperately needed now, because state revenues are up. That reform can wait until the election in 2006.

I imagine you’ve got a number of advisers telling you not to wait, because next year you might run for re-election, so it’s too “risky” to push big reform at the same time.

Frankly, I can’t imagine a strategy more fraught with risk than your current plan of selling contentious ideas to a public that is looking at you with skepticism.

The other day, you publicly admitted that you’ve had vivid dreams in which Democratic leaders walk up to tell you your budget is “perfect.”

I thought you were onto something when you revealed that dream. People voted for you because they expected you to clean up Sacramento. They felt personally connected to you, because of your films and because you simply did not act like a politician. So, stop acting like one.

You’ve been using your weekly radio address to promote your reforms. You ought to be using the time to give voters a window into what’s happening with you. Maria once said, during a TV interview, that you often work until 1 a.m. What on? How are things between you and those old Democratic lions John Burton and Willie Brown? Too strained even for a drink, or not?

No politician can keep his poll numbers up in the stratosphere, and I’m not suggesting you try. As one Sacramento pundit argued early this year, the best thing a politician can do if he or she enjoys huge poll numbers is to start spending all that political capital on controversial, yet badly needed, change.

Spending political capital means popularity takes a hit. It was inevitable that the Los Angeles billboard of you staring from reflector sunglasses would eventually attract the protests of graffiti gangs.

What’s not inevitable is that budget reform fails once again in California, that education reform fades and that Californians get stuck with endless gerrymandering.

Voters will listen to reasonable arguments from you on these issues. But right now, voters are mad at you, Arnold. And, as I’m sure you know, nobody can listen when they’re mad.