In his first year as governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger did one thing at a time and was strikingly successful at bending state government to his will. This year, he chose to take on just about every big issue he could think of, all at once, and has paid a huge price. By attacking on all fronts, Schwarzenegger "basically united a lot of powerful and popular groups against him," says Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley. "All of the cleverness of last year was undone by the stupidity of this year."
Rather than presenting finished deals to the legislature as faits accompli, as in 2004, Schwarzenegger has had to back off from one half-baked scheme after another, withdrawing error-ridden packages on government reorganization and parole reform and conceding defeat on a change in state pensions drafted in a way that would have cut off widows and orphans. "In place of the much-heralded Schwarzenegger discipline and focus," says Tim Hodson, of the Center for California Studies at Sacramento State University, "this year he just seems to be all over the place."
The governor gave the legislature a deadline of March 1 to adopt the rest of his proposals, including changes in teacher pay, the elimination of partisan redistricting, and a spending cap. If they missed the deadline, he said he would simply call a special election for November and appeal to the voters.
Lawmakers did miss the deadline. But that hasn't worked out too well for the state's chief executive, either. Public- sector unions are spending an estimated $3 million per week on ads and other attacks against his plans. The teachers' union is planning to dun its members an additional $55 million for that purpose. Schwarzenegger apparently intends to go ahead with the special election, but he's putting forward a much-diminished agenda. And his precipitous decline in approval ratings suggests he might not win over the public with a confused message of reform (one that looks like it will be swamped, in any case, by an unrelated abortion initiative that will also be on the ballot).
Democratic legislators, once cowed by him, sense Schwarzenegger's weakness and are increasingly vocal about their refusal to cut any deals with him--the sort of deals they would have made willingly last year and might have considered as recently as a few weeks ago. The governor's only hope now may be a stalemate in which he can convince voters that it's the legislature's fault, rather than his own, that the state's dysfunctional political system hasn't changed.
Such a course may guide him to reelection in 2006, but it won't do anything to help fix the ailing system. That's the real squandered opportunity.