Management & Labor

Defying Proverbial Wisdom

California governors have a penchant for reinventing themselves in an election year. And voters seem to admire the audacity of a chameleon.
by | December 2006

Proverbs supposedly exist to help us live wiser, saner lives. As you may have noticed, however, they don't exactly provide consistent advice. Consider, for example, the list of 261 world-famous proverbs sitting right here on my desk. Look before you leap, it warns me, but then, it says, he who hesitates is lost. Opportunity only knocks once, but somehow if I fail to seize it, I'm supposed to try and try again.

Maddening as this is for an ordinary person, it would be much worse if I were a politician seeking proverbial guidance. Let's say I found myself newly elected to a state legislature. Should I start speaking out on major issues or stay on the backbench for a term or so? Speak out, of course: It's the squeaky wheel that gets the grease. That's proverb 149 on the list. But not too loudly: It's well known that empty vessels make the most noise. That's proverb 85.

What do I do in a close reelection campaign--savage my opponent or take the high road? Go after him, naturally: Proverb 43 tells me that attack is the best form of defense. On the other hand, proverb 64 reminds me that discretion is the better part of valor. Maybe I just flip a coin.

But there comes a moment in the career of many elected officials that requires all the wisdom that can be gleaned from every possible source, ancient and modern. It's the moment when everything has gone wrong. You're the governor of a major American state. You've laid out a program and fought for it, and the people have repudiated you in unmistakably clear terms. Next year, you have to run for reelection, and your approval rating is abysmal. What do you do now--stick to your guns, redouble your efforts, and hope to win the electorate over? Or chuck the whole crusade and find yourself a brand-new strategy and image?

On this question, as on few others, the proverb makers speak with relative unanimity: stay the course. An election-year quick-change is not only improper but also impossible. Leopards can't change their spots, and old dogs can't learn new tricks. As you make your bed, so shall you lie--and as you have sown, so shall you reap.

It's time-tested advice, and generations of politicians have learned its wisdom, many the hard way. There's just one small group that seems consistently to be exempt from it: governors of California.

A year ago, Arnold Schwarzenegger was in just the predicament described above, if not an even worse one. He had called a special election to enact ballot measures that would cut state spending dramatically, concentrate budget decisions in the governor's hands, and curtail the influence of labor unions. He spent the better part of a year campaigning for these measures and saw every one of them defeated overwhelmingly. His approval scores were in the mid-30s. His public image was that of an inflexible autocrat who delighted in ridiculing anyone who stood in his way. He had famously referred to the Democrats who controlled the legislature as "girlie men" and "stooges" and made incessant attacks on the "culture of corruption" in San Diego.

When his reform package turned out to be an embarrassing political failure, Schwarzenegger was counseled by his advisers not to change course. They had obviously read their proverbs--it was too late to change; voters would perceive an extreme makeover as insincere, if not hypocritical.

Schwarzenegger decided to defy the proverbial wisdom. The Republican governor dismissed his chief of staff and hired a liberal Democrat to run his office. He began making friends with the Democratic legislative leaders, and moved to the left on most of the important issues. He became an activist against global warming. He signed legislation to raise the minimum wage and provide state subsidies for prescription drug prices. He went along with the increased spending for education and social services that he had denounced as wasteful and counterproductive only a few months before.

By mid-year, Schwarzenegger's public approval scores were back in the comfortable mid-50s. He was renominated without serious opposition. And three weeks ago, he won a second term comfortably against a Democratic opponent who never seemed to find an effective issue to use against him.

Even allowing for the fact that the conciliatory centrist politics of Schwarzenegger '06 were a closer fit to the public mood than the belligerence of Schwarzenegger '05, it still stands as curious that the state's voters would eagerly accept such a blatant election-year makeover. The governor didn't talk about having changed his mind on major issues; he just acted as if the past had never happened and he was free to become an entirely different politician. At the very least, you might expect a debate about cynical opportunism. But no such debate took place.

Here's one plausible explanation: Arnold Schwarzenegger is an actor. Actors play roles. Moviegoers aren't surprised when they portray mild- mannered bank clerks in one film and gun-toting avengers in the next one. So they weren't surprised when Schwarzenegger took off his populist costume and put on the clothes of a conciliator. They didn't judge him the way they would have judged a career politician.

That's certainly part of it; there's another part, though. Schwarzenegger isn't the only governor in recent California history who has gotten away with something like this. In California, election- year reinvention is as much the rule as the exception.

There was, for example, Jerry Brown. Seeking a second gubernatorial term in 1978, Brown found himself having to contend with Proposition 13, the drastic ballot measure placing a lid on local property taxes. Before the vote on Prop 13, he denounced it as "a consumer fraud" and "the biggest can of worms that has ever been presented to government anywhere."

When the measure was approved statewide by a two-thirds majority, he changed his mind with a haste that makes Schwarzenegger look lethargic by comparison. Just days after the vote took place, Brown declared that "the people have had it" on taxes and proclaimed himself a "born- again tax-cutter." Nor was he the least bit apologetic about his instant reversal. "When I see a good idea," he announced, "I'm prepared to steal it." California voters were no more incensed by this than they were by Schwarzenegger's reversals 28 years later. They returned Brown to the governorship by nearly 1.4 million votes--the largest plurality in the history of the state in a contested election.

Then there was Pete Wilson. Viewed as a moderate Republican throughout a quarter century as a state legislator, U.S. senator and mayor of San Diego, Wilson retained that image in his successful campaign for governor in 1990 and for most of his first term. But by 1994, when he sought reelection, he was in political trouble, trailing badly in the polls. At a time of conservative resentment almost everywhere in the country, Wilson swerved sharply to the right, leading the campaign for a ballot measure barring the provision of social services to illegal immigrants or their families.

Unlike the conversions of Brown and Schwarzenegger, this was in no way a cost-free political move: It turned Hispanic voters against the GOP in numbers so large as to place a heavy burden on Republicans running statewide in California for a full decade. But it did the trick for Wilson: He caught up in the polls within a matter of weeks and ultimately won by more than a million votes.

You might say it's one more example of California's weirdness. Maybe there's something in the coastal climate that causes voters to admire the audacity of a chameleon rather than question his underlying integrity. But more likely not. I don't think California has any hard- wired attraction to quick-change artists. I think it happens to have produced three very clever ones over the past three decades. And I'm inclined to believe that, proverbial wisdom notwithstanding, voters in most places have a fairly high level of tolerance for chameleonship. They don't mind watching a leopard change his spots, as long as he does it with a certain degree of style.

Whenever I see somebody pull off this sort of act at the state level, I'm drawn irresistibly to the case of the greatest chameleon in modern American political history: the late U.S. Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois. Elected to Congress in the 1930s as a liberal Republican, more often than not supportive of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, he changed clothes and campaigned for the Senate unexpectedly in 1950 as a rabid Red-baiting McCarthyite. Then, in the twilight of his career, he changed again and became a civil rights advocate, working with Lyndon Johnson to enact the landmark civil rights legislation of the mid-1960s.

It was impossible to find any real pattern of consistency in Dirksen's career, but he never claimed there was one. "I am a man of fixed and unbending principles," he once said, "the first of which is to be flexible at all times... The only people who do not change their minds are incompetents in asylums."

Schwarzenegger has turned out to be almost as good at this sort of maneuvering in the 21st century as Dirksen was in the 20th. To those who may find any comparison between the two a little bizarre, I offer one small historical fact. Politics was the career Dirksen settled on when he failed at his first calling. What he really wanted to be was an actor."I am a man of fixed and unbending principles," declared U.S. Senator Everett Dirksen, "the first of which is to be flexible at all times.

Alan Ehrenhalt
Alan Ehrenhalt  |  Contributing Editor
aehrenhalt@governing.com  | 

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