By Harold Meyerson
Thursday, November 10, 2005
LOS ANGELES -- Arnold Schwarzenegger's nine mad months of governing Democratic California as a partisan Republican came to the most predictable of unhappy endings here on Tuesday. Each of the four ballot measures he inflicted on voters in his special election lost decisively -- his spending-limit proposal tanking by 24 percent, and his measure to curb the clout of public-sector unions (Proposition 75) by 7 percent. The mystery of this election is what on earth Schwarzenegger could have been thinking: No comparable elected official in recent memory has picked a fight so gratuitously and come out of it so beat up.
Back in January Schwarzenegger's approval rating stood at 62 percent in the Public Policy Institute of California's poll. Then, in short order, he called for axing the pensions of the state's public employees, which would have eliminated the survivor benefits for widows and orphans of police officers and firefighters. He tried to stall the implementation of a law mandating a nurse-to-patient ratio in hospitals and attacked the nurses' union as a special interest. He reneged on a commitment to restore funding for the state's schools. He went after the public employees unions by backing Proposition 75. And the sky fell on him.
California's unions produced a torrent of advertising that featured cops, nurses, teachers and firefighters condemning the governor. They revved up the most effective Democratic voter mobilization operation in the nation. When they were done, not only did the governor's propositions fail but his approval rating in the most recent PPIC poll collapsed to a Bushian 35 percent.
"Arnold's mistake was to try to leverage his popularity to advance the Republican platform, which doesn't have much support in California," the state's Democratic Assembly speaker, Fabian Nunez, remarked a few days before the vote. "The Republicans see him as a vehicle to move their agenda, and he's done that rather than try to enlarge their agenda."
You'd think the Governator would know better. He was elected less as a partisan Republican than as an outsider who could forge bi- and nonpartisan solutions in a fractious Sacramento. Sometime last winter, though, he forgot who he'd been when the voters elected him. He began spouting the gospel according to Grover Norquist, the anti-tax, anti-union Republican strategist. But Norquist's Proposition 226 -- a 1998 anti-union California ballot measure that essentially prefigured this year's Proposition 75 -- had gone down in a heap. Why did Schwarzenegger think he could prevail with a warmed-over version seven years later? Particularly since California is just about the only state in which union density has actually increased over the past half-decade?
The answer is: the special election. By calling yet another election in election-weary California, Schwarzenegger was counting on engendering so much voter revulsion at the election itself that only a relative handful of disproportionately Republican voters would actually go to the polls. After all, the past two special elections to feature only propositions and no candidates on the ballot -- one in 1979, the other in 1993 -- both had roughly 37 percent turnout. The unions understood that their task was to push turnout over 40 percent, and on Tuesday they did just that.
The conventional wisdom out here is that Schwarzenegger, like the Terminator, will be back -- that he'll seek reelection next year and mount a strong and quite possibly successful candidacy. I don't buy that. He'll run, all right, but I think the damage he's inflicted on himself precludes much hope of a comeback. His polling among independents and moderates is almost as low as it is among Democrats and liberals. His approval rating among Latinos has toppled to a ghastly 25 percent.
More broadly, Schwarzenegger's fierce opposition to raising taxes to pay for state services is profoundly at odds with the wishes of state voters. Over the past couple of years, while he has raised tuition and restricted admissions to the state's universities rather than hike taxes on the rich, voters in more than 100 municipalities around the state have levied higher property taxes on themselves to pay for new schools.
Indeed, the repudiation of Schwarzenegger's propositions, coupled with the defeat in Virginia of the Republicans' taxophobic gubernatorial nominee, Jerry Kilgore, and last week's decision by Colorado voters to partially overturn a spending limit that was blocking road and school construction, strongly suggests that the Republicans' anti-tax revolt is running out of steam. All politics may be local, but when you lose in dissimilar localities all across the country, in large part because the central theme of contemporary conservatism isn't resonating anymore, you have yourself a national problem. And that's not even counting the issue of George W. Bush.