The Schwarzenegger Legacy: What Legacy?

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The response was predictable. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s friends were shocked, bewildered and disgusted.

 “He betrayed the people who supported him from day one,” said Sacramento’s Ted Costa, who helped launch the recall of Gov. Gray Davis in 2003. If you went by the papers and the television talking heads, the revelation about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s out-of-wedlock son would stain, if not destroy, the governor’s “legacy.”

What legacy?

When he was elected in 2003, California faced a multi-billion dollar budget deficit. When he left office eight years later, the state faced a multi-billion dollar budget deficit.

When he began, he declared his intention to “tear up the credit card.” In the years since, he’s put more on the credit card than any of his predecessors. In the meantime, trying to pretend that the state had got its fiscal house in order, he exhausted every fiscal gimmick and dodge that was still left to him. He compounded the state’s fiscal problems – he and the legislature together — by running us out of gimmicks.  He tried to sell the lottery and the state’s office buildings. He would have sold the sunshine and the beaches had they been marketable.

On his first day in office, he cut the state’s vehicle license fee at a cost of roughly $6 billion a year. Californians had paid it for most of the prior half century and never noticed until a right-leaning politician made an issue of it, immediately after, he borrowed a record $15 billion to pay off part of the state’s debt.

He pushed still more borrowing for water projects and other infrastructure, much of which should have been funded by user fees and gas taxes. He endorsed passage of the unfunded stem cell bonds that will cost the state another $6 billion before they’re paid off.

He made deals with interest groups – the teacher’s union on school funding, the Latino caucus on drivers’ licenses for illegal aliens – and promptly reneged. He first resisted, then grudgingly agreed to sign AB32, the state’s landmark greenhouse gas emission control law and then promptly took credit for it.

The shock last week was not the news about retired former worker in the Schwarzenegger household and her 14-year-old son in Bakersfield, but the shocked response among people who should have known. Should we have really been surprised? Didn’t we know about the drug use, the narcissism and the pathological exercise of power?

In the months before the recall election, the Los Angeles Times ran a string of stories documenting Schwarzenegger’s serial backstage groping in the decades before.  In return, the paper and its reporters were vilified for bias, distortion and invasions of privacy.

We should have known that while you can take the boy out of Hollywood, you can’t take Hollywood out of the boy.  If the press had pursued the groping stories we might have been spared seven years of show-biz, glitz and mis-government: Faucets running red ink in Sacramento; shoveling dirt into photo-op pot holes in San Jose; the ballyhooed “compacts” on global warming with Tony Blair and the Canadians; the trash talk about political adversaries as “girlie men.”   

In the stories of the past week, some spoke about Schwarzenegger’s “landslide” victory in the 2003 recall. That would be the first time in history that a candidate with 48.6 percent of the votes got credit for a landslide. The trouble is that Schwarzenegger himself believed it.

No, the dubious legacy isn’t all Arnold’s fault. We have a convoluted governmental system that seems almost designed to be dysfunctional and a poisonous political culture that grows more toxic every year. We have a Republican Party, at one time presumably his base, that’s more like a cult than a political party – the Tea Party long before anyone had ever coined the name.

But Schwarzenegger arrived in office with a large reservoir of credibility, and he could have done much more with it. Instead, he quickly converted it to Hollywood humbug. He could have ended the pretense and the denial, as Jerry Brown is trying to do now. He could have asked for a compromise solution like the one Ronald Reagan negotiated in 1967 and Pete Wilson did in the early 1990s. Split the difference between spending cuts and revenue increases.

Instead he played to his Republican base and its theology – the trouble wasn’t enough revenue, he said again and again, it was too much spending. At one time, he echoed Grover Norquist, the high priest of the anti-taxers: Starve the beast of government.

But even his play to the GOP assumed a partnership that couldn’t last. Cultish orthodoxy was never his thing, lines at the box office and public adulation was. The latest revelation didn’t “squander any legacy,” as the conservative radio talker Melanie Morgan ambiguously put. It confirmed it.

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Peter Schrag, whose exclusive weekly column appears every Monday in the California Progress Report, is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future and California: America’s High Stakes Experiment. His new book, Not Fit for Our Society: Nativism, Eugenics, Immigration is now on sale.

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