Schwarzenegger: From Action Hero to Tragic Hero?

As he leaves office, is California's governor unpopular because he fought the good fight against Democratic and Republican ideologues? Or was he really part of the problem?
by | July 13, 2010

The New York Times has a piece that more or less describes California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger as a tragic hero. And, there's a decent case for that. The Times points out that Schwarzenegger lacks political allies in part because he wasn't willing to be a doctrinaire Republican or a doctrinaire Democrat. It also points out that he played a role in pushing through two key structural changes -- the top-two primary system and non-partisan legislative redistricting -- that supporters believe will lead California government in a more pragmatic direction in the future.

Still, it's worth noting that there's a different interpretation of Schwarzenegger's governorship -- one that's actually buried in the same Times piece. Consider these paragraphs:

But most of his accomplishments have been reached less through compromise — old-fashioned nonpartisanship — and more through cleverly aligning himself with the strongest proponents of a policy and either buying off its opponent with a political treat or, conversely, using brute political force, at times letting the courts adjudicate his actions.

This governing style was largely an ad hoc reaction to failure and crisis. In 2005, the governor, fresh off his recall victory and eager to “blow up boxes,” as he said at the time, took on the public employees unions with ballot initiatives that would have capped spending, given sweeping new budget powers to the executive branch and taken redistricting power from the Legislature. After a bruising campaign, voters rejected all his measures.

Fast forward to 2006, re-election time, and the governor quickly aligned with Democrats, imposing the country’s most stringent controls on carbon-dioxide emissions, raising the minimum wage by $1 an hour and demanding that Washington let Californians import cheaper drugs from Canada — all the opposing party’s ideas.

This is a really prescient point. Schwarzenegger wasn't a mushy moderate. He often was a bold governor -- sometimes bold in a way the Democrats liked and sometimes in a way Republicans liked. The strongest criticism of this approach is that because it was "ad hoc," as the Times says, it also was internally contradictory.

Schwarzenegger supported lots of big spending projects, including tens of billions of dollars in borrowing for infrastructure. Democrats liked that. He opposed tax increases, except briefly when the budget crisis became exceptionally severe. Republicans liked that.

It's only a perhaps moderate exaggeration to say that for much of his tenure Schwarzenegger spent money like a liberal Democrat and raised revenue like a conservative Republican. Schwarzenegger wanted an expensive state-level universal health care system and a $43 billion high-speed rail network, but he didn't want broad-based tax increases. There are lots of causes of California's worst-in-the-nation bond ratings and its budget crisis, but Schwarzenegger's multiple personalities on fiscal issues probably is one of them.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer

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