SACRAMENTO -- The Terminator has rescued himself from political ruin by reinventing his approach to government, thus demonstrating in the most dramatic way possible the value of political independence.
Just 10 months after California voters rejected all four of the ballot initiatives he put before them and sent his personal approval ratings crashing to dangerous depths, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is riding high, poised to win a full term come November.
Instead of the partisan assault on public employee unions and Democratic legislators (a.k.a. "girlie men") that marked his rhetoric in 2005, Schwarzenegger has negotiated agreements this year on a minimum-wage increase, higher school spending, curbing air pollution and a mega-bond sale designed to meet overdue highway, flood-control and school-construction needs.
Democratic leaders of the legislature, who a year ago were ready to cut Schwarzenegger's throat politically, now sing his praises and join him on the platform at bill-signing ceremonies, while the unions debate whether it is worthwhile to put money into the rival campaign of the struggling Democratic nominee, state Treasurer Phil Angelides.
This turnaround, likely to yield a notable Republican victory in a year of widespread GOP losses, began within a week of Schwarzenegger's humiliation in the November 2005 special election he had called in hopes of trumping the legislature and passing four initiatives that would have curbed the unions and expanded his power to run the state his way.
He immediately and publicly said that he had misjudged the electorate but had heard the voters' message: Cut the partisan rhetoric and get back to work on the real problems facing the state.
He signaled the change by hiring as his new chief of staff Susan Kennedy, a lifelong Democrat who had served as executive director of the state party and a key aide to former governor Gray Davis, the man Schwarzenegger beat in the recall election of 2003.
The other day, puffing a cigar in the smoking tent Schwarzenegger built in the courtyard of the smoke-free capitol, Kennedy talked about the new regime.
The governor still has very large goals, she said, citing the billions in construction bonds he has placed on the ballot in November. Those goals, she said, proved irresistible to the Democrats, "who salivate at the thought of spending $50 billion." But they also represent a political risk -- it will be a struggle to pass even one or two, polls show -- by a man "who is not afraid to fail, because he picks himself right up and goes back for more."
Were Schwarzenegger not that resilient and resourceful, he never would have made it out of Austria, to the top of the body-building world, to a business career, Hollywood stardom and now striking success in politics, all of which Joe Mathews describes in his excellent new political biography, "The People's Machine: Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Rise of Blockbuster Democracy."
Along the way, as one of the governor's aides told me, Schwarzenegger became an expert at marketing himself, "and to market yourself, you have to reinvent yourself."
The biggest reinvention came inside the governor's own head. A year ago, when I interviewed him on the eve of the special election, Schwarzenegger expressed burning frustration with the political, bureaucratic and interest-group barriers to his accomplishing great goals for his state.
After the failure of his effort to bypass all those barriers through direct appeal to the voters, an old Sacramento hand was summoned for help by the governor and his wife, Maria Shriver. Schwarzenegger was told he needed to learn one thing: patience.
Amazingly to some, he has learned it, and now works comfortably, convivially, on forging compromises with the very same Democratic legislators and lobbyists he once tried to run out of town. In turn, they have responded by cooperating instead of conniving to defeat or embarrass him.
Schwarzenegger's abandonment of a partisan posture has not cost him significant support in his own party, for a simple reason. As the only major Republican elected in this Democratic capitol, he stands as the barrier to higher taxes and more stringent regulation of business.
More important, his current political posture mirrors the makeup of this complex state, where the only growing political group consists of those who decline to state a party preference and where myriad competing racial, ethnic and geographic forces require political leadership with dexterity and flexibility.
Schwarzenegger is providing his party -- and the country -- with an object lesson in how to survive and thrive in that kind of independent political environment. Others will have to learn.