Still the one

Voters disapprove of Schwarzenegger but still want to see him most triumphant

A fascinating new poll shows that despite their current dim view of him, Californians still want to see Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger succeed. If the governor is smart, he will take time out of his fall offensive—which is aimed at turning the polls around, passing key reforms and regaining momentum—in order to grasp what voters are saying.

The stakes are high, and both sides are spending every dime to influence voter and pundit opinion. But the poll out of San Jose State University sheds light on what afflicts the governor: the same troubles that recently torpedoed California’s American Indian tribes.

What happened to the tribes is a profound lesson about how far and fast the popular, like Arnold, can fall in public opinion. In 2000, voters granted the tribes permission to erect casinos in California. Voters were driven in large part by guilt over historic treatment of Indians. As a result, California gaming tribes got rich and now rival Las Vegas for income. A monthly income of $30,000 for every man, woman and child in a tribe is no longer big news.

But the once-popular tribes earned the enmity of California voters by getting greedy. They squabbled to eject members so the remaining tribal members wouldn’t have to share. Some families dug up grandma to provide ancestral DNA.

Worse, the tribes abandoned their campaign promise of casinos only on “Indian land.” Today, “Indian land” is any land the staggeringly rich gaming tribes can buy with acquiescence from politicians.

Arnold is now mired in the same situation that tarred the tribes, even though he has accomplished more in two years than Gray Davis did in five (workers’-comp reform, budget reductions, slashing the car tax, killing driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants, stimulating private-sector job growth and vetoing terrible laws passed by the Legislature). But Arnold’s incessant fund-raising evokes the same greedy grasping we saw from the gaming tribes.

He still might turn things around before the election. The poll by the Survey and Policy Research Institute of San Jose State University shows Californians still want to see Arnold succeed, by 49 percent to 40 percent, even if only 31 percent give him a positive approval rating. Voters disapprove of him yet want him to do well. They like his goals. But!

Again, look to the tribes. The tribes assumed they had so much goodwill that voters wouldn’t care about the slime factor in their massive campaign donating. They were popular, and, by God, they were owed.

In 2003, the tribes poured millions into electing Lt. Governor Cruz Bustamante as governor. But instead of getting their pro-casino man elected, voters said no. Then, in 2004, normally bighearted California voters stood in line to vote against further acquiescence to Indian gaming, as Proposition 70 went down to big defeat.

Not surprisingly, money and greed are also why we need the reforms Schwarzenegger is pushing. California’s deficit, lingering at several billion dollars, was fueled by me-first government unions who control the Legislature like floppy puppets on Sesame Street. For years, unions with huge lobbying offices in Sacramento have hammered the Legislature into backing billions of dollars in unaffordable programs that—surprise, surprise—employ hordes of new union workers.

Every time a program grows, so does the size and power of a union. Who cares if the program even helps?

Now that Arnold’s in the doghouse with voters, however, what can be done?

Jonathan Wilcox, adjunct professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and a consultant to Congressman Darrell Issa during the recall, has given me spot-on predictions of Arnold’s stumbles. Now he says Arnold needs a powerful theme “that comes more from sorrow than from anger. … He has to fight on the proposition that we the people of California can fight the system, and he has to convince the people that they—not him, or his star power or his money—but only they can change California.”

Instead, Schwarzenegger repeats his awful, singsong speech on special interests.

Suggested Wilcox: “There is a great temptation to yell a little louder and use a little tougher talk and shake your fist a little more demonstrably, which is often substituted in politics for vigorous initiatives. You see that on the left side of the political aisle, but let’s be clear that Republicans do that, too. It was evident in the Clinton-hating years, when they mistook what they were doing for moving the ball down the field when it was just a bunch of chest-thumping.”

Unlike the tribes, the governor isn’t in it personally for money. Clearly, voters know this. That’s why the San Jose State University poll shows that, despite it all, Californians hope Arnold succeeds. It’s just that voters have trouble seeing true reform amid all those piles of cash.