The muscle-bound wimp

When it came time to do the heavy lifting, the governor dropped the bar and resorted to deal-making and gimmicks

Illustration By B.Z.

Is the governor a wimp? It was a legitimate question as the Legislature and Arnold Schwarzenegger hammered out final details of the massive state budget, and we saw him resort to new borrowing and tired gimmicks that conjured up discomforting images of the ultimate wimp, Gray Davis.

Though the answer to the wimp question may not be clear for a while, questions arising about the governor’s toughness are key. His political guts dramatically will affect everything from whether California is able to avert future energy crises, and bring our crazy electricity costs back down to levels enjoyed in the rest of the nation, to whether California’s reform-hating teachers unions win their effort to mask widespread adult incompetence by halting the oh-so-telling statewide testing of California’s second-graders.

A flurry of wimp-factor stories about Schwarzenegger hit the news at the end of June. Reports surfaced that the governor had failed to notably trim the bloated government-worker pension system; had caved to state employee unions in most areas involving raises and benefits (including an apparent pledge of even more taxpayer funds to cover increasing health-care costs, even though many taxpayers now pay their own increasing health costs); had agreed to new raises for prison health-care workers; had settled for inadequate cuts to the out-of-control prison-guard raises; and had gone wobbly on cuts to skyrocketing costs in higher education, health and human services and other programs.

Schwarzenegger is a deal-maker. He may be risking the appearance of being a wimp now in order to achieve other goals further down the line. He may have realized, even while energetically insisting that he would cut spending dramatically in his 2004-2005 budget, that after only seven months on the job and in the face of unified Democratic opposition, this was, in fact, impossible.

It is entirely likely that the big concessions he’s made to the Democrats are part of a plan to rid himself of this budget, clear the deck and undertake serious reform work this fall and next year, when there are no highly partisan legislative or national elections to worry about.

Under this upbeat scenario about what is going on inside the governor’s head, he’ll get tough and address California’s deep problems in taxation, governance, energy, education, social spending, infrastructure, housing and businesses’ flight out of state, only after he’s heard public comment about the fairly radical findings to be released any day now by his California Performance Review Team.

Insiders tell me the 250-member California Performance Review Team has found a few billion dollars in annual savings—but only if Schwarzenegger embraces dramatic change.

If Schwarzenegger’s decision to come across now like an unthreatening Baby Huey is all part of a multiphased negotiating strategy to get past the budget debate and more quickly address some of this potent stuff, I’m all for it.

It wouldn’t be the first time Schwarzenegger has coaxed the competition to relax and then maneuvered it to where he wanted it. He used that strategy to rise to the top in global bodybuilding, and, despite a recent out-to-lunch New Yorker piece that tried to paint him as a Hollywood has-been who’s accomplished little in Sacramento, the truth is that Schwarzenegger got the schemers in Hollywood to bend to him, and he’s already accomplished a lot in the Capitol.

(Continuing the East Coast media tradition of misconstruing California issues, The New Yorker tried to dismiss Schwarzenegger’s workers’- comp reform as a loss for injured workers and depicted the Proposition 13 property-tax revolution as having left our schools devastated. In fact, workers’-comp reforms help the truly injured—but hurt the cheaters. Moreover, our classrooms are getting far more money in constant dollars today than they ever dreamed of getting before Proposition 13, because of massive funding authorized by voters.)

But let’s look at the other side of the debate. Let’s discuss what happens when the desire to please everyone backfires like it did for another TV-serial crowd-pleaser, Eddie Haskell, in Leave it to Beaver. Sure, it was only a TV show, but the message was that in real life, those overeager to please end up pleasing nobody.

What if Schwarzenegger has gotten so wrapped up in being popular that he ends up devolving into just another incrementalist?

After all, his own wife, Maria Shriver, publicly insists he is “a populist”—a horribly limiting role for any modern politician who wants to bring serious change. Modern populists are the ultimate weak leaders. We can only hope that Shriver, a Democrat, is merely voicing her dreams of a distant day when leaders don’t need to make ugly decisions and everybody wins.

But if Shriver is right—if, in his heart, Schwarzenegger is merely a populist—then serious problems may emerge later this year, as Schwarzenegger takes on some very weighty policy wars that affect us all.

“You can’t squander your political capital like this and then effectively fight back on major issues like education reform with the Democrats,” said Republican state Assemblyman Keith Richman of Northridge. “He has the ability to make real change for the better in California, and I’m concerned that some of his budget agreements lack any real reform.”

By Richman’s calculations, Schwarzenegger’s too-light tap on the spending brakes, if not fixed next year, will add “$2 billion or more” to a $7.8 billion deficit projected two years from now by nonpartisan Chief Legislative Analyst Liz Hill. “This is very, very troubling to me,” said Richman, a doctor who owns a successful business and is one of the few independent legislators.

Joel Fox, former leader of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and now an unpaid appointee to Schwarzenegger’s California Performance Review Team, which soon will hold public hearings into how to dramatically reform California government, said he hopes Schwarzenegger is “just righting a listing ship so he can begin the real improvements that he really feels need to be made.”

Fox said that “creating a 21st-century government won’t happen overnight. So, even though I frankly wish the governor had taken a much harder line on cutting pensions, and on other costs, I am going with the attitude that he has a longer- term vision.”

Fox said the governor does not need the Legislature to enact certain types of reforms that do not require a new state law. Schwarzenegger can adopt those reforms by administrative fiat or by seeking formal recommendations from the government-efficiency group the Little Hoover Commission.

Said Fox: “As we saw with the closures of military bases in California, where an independent body brought its list of closures to the state Legislature for a thumbs up or thumbs down only, reforms proposed by the Little Hoover Commission could not be watered down by the Legislature. It would be thumbs up or thumbs down.”

I love the sound of that. What a joy to watch our Legislature finally be forced to take firm stands on the ossification that drags down many well-intentioned state programs. But that’s all down the road, and it probably can’t happen until next year.

I am far more worried about huge policy battles the governor faces this summer and fall. I fear that by positioning himself now as a lightweight on budget cuts, Schwarzenegger has created far stiffer psychological resistance among emboldened Democrats who—God knows why—have become the anti-reform party in the Capitol.

On California’s energy crunch, for example, key Democrats led by Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez are trying to adopt Assembly Bill 2006, custom-designed to allow Southern California Edison to keep building inefficient power plants with no accountability for costs, and then let the utility pass the costs to consumers. Schwarzenegger, who will make two key appointments in December to the powerful California Public Utilities Commission, is now going to come under tremendous pressure to appoint weenies who go along with such garbage.

On education, key Democrats are pushing a plan, the outcome of more than a year of scheming by labor Democrats, to end statewide second-grade testing of California students.

This is a battle for California’s future whose importance cannot be understated. The second-grade tests are the main device for identifying lax teachers who still don’t teach children to read, even as teachers right down the hall do a great job with the same kids. The all-powerful education unions have managed to prevent California parents from seeing the classroom results of these telling tests; the public can see only the results for an entire school. Now, in a further bid to mask adult incompetence, they want to end second- grade tests entirely by 2007.

Lynn Daucher of Brea, the Assembly’s Republican education expert, said she hopes the governor can save second-grade testing, even though hard-left labor Democrats are insisting on the phase-out as a precondition of reauthorizing crucially important statewide testing for all ages. “We hope and think the governor can still save second-grade testing before any 2007 phase-out actually happens,” said Daucher.

Unfortunately, the governor is operating from a weaker position. When Schwarzenegger talks about cutting at least $300 million from pay increases for unpopular prison guards but comes away cutting only about $50 million this year and $50 million next year, it sends a message that he’s not that tough. But it’s early to jump to conclusions. This summer and fall, we’ll find out who our governor really is.