Schwarzenegger Agenda Could Flex California's Muscle

By Sonya Geis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 10, 2007

LOS ANGELES, Jan. 9 -- A lesson from California: Never underestimate the ambition of a former Mr. Universe. Over the past week, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) has unleashed a torrent of proposals to shake up everything in his state from health care to road-building to politics itself, all in an effort to reshape his party and set a national agenda.

The most recent offering, in Schwarzenegger's State of the State address Tuesday, is a plan to cut vehicle emissions of greenhouse gases by 10 percent. He will require petroleum refineries to reduce the carbon content of their fuel over the next 13 years -- a signal to any doubters that his recent aggressive positioning as an environmentalist is not mere political theater.

"Let us blaze the way, for the U.S. and for China and for the rest of the world. Our cars have been running on dirty fuel for too long," Schwarzenegger said. "California has the muscle to bring about such change. I say use it."

The proposal requires the California Air Resources Board to set new standards for oil refineries that sell fuel in the state. They can meet those standards by combining gasoline production with that of alternative fuels, such as ethanol, compressed natural gas or hydrogen. Or they could purchase pollution credits from clean-fuel producers.

With Schwarzenegger's plans for big spending, support for issues such as raising the minimum wage and embryonic stem cell research, plus a recent wave of inclusive rhetoric, the governor has styled himself as a newer, bluer Republican, or "post-partisan," as he likes to say. He unabashedly declares that the national GOP ought to take notice.

"Not only can we lead California into the future, we can show the nation and the world how to get there," Schwarzenegger said in his address. "We can do this because we have the economic strength, we have the population and the technological force of a nation-state. We are the modern equivalent of the ancient city-states of Athens and Sparta."

The action-hero governor hopes to flex the state's muscles in the national arena starting next year. Schwarzenegger told Newsweek this week that he wants to move California's primary elections to February, giving the state more clout in presidential elections.

On Monday, he unveiled a proposal to provide health insurance for all California residents, including illegal immigrants. Last year, he used his political strength to push through $42.7 billion in bonds for roads, levees and schools. In the budget proposal he will unveil Wednesday, the governor will ask for $43.3 billion in infrastructure bonds for water supply, disaster preparedness, public safety and education.

The governor has also signaled his willingness to spend money on reforming the state's collapsing prison system -- he is under a federal mandate to reduce overcrowding -- as well as environmental research, career technical-education programs and stem cell research.

Outside California -- a state where 43 percent of registered voters are Democrats, 34 percent are Republican and 19 percent are independent -- Schwarzenegger's example may carry little weight, some observers said.

"We don't know where the Republican Party is going and if Arnold's message is going to be widely received by red-state Republicans," said Bruce Cain, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California at Berkeley. "It works for blue-state Republicans, but does it work for red-state Republicans?"

Schwarzenegger could also face opposition from state Democrats, who are already upset by a plan to cut welfare benefits to families whose parents have not moved into the workforce fast enough. The governor would also deny a scheduled 4 percent raise in welfare payments. The plan could save hundreds of millions of dollars in Schwarzenegger's budget proposal, but Democrats in the legislature called it a "non-starter."

Schwarzenegger's ability to refashion the Republican Party is hampered by the fact that, as a naturalized citizen, he cannot lead it as a presidential candidate. In addition, he is not dealing with what many political observers say is the signature issue of the day.

"The problem is, Arnold's message is largely about domestic issues, and the national agenda right now for the foreseeable future is going to be dominated by Iraq," Cain said.

Even within California, Schwarzenegger will no doubt face opposition from his own party. The legislature is controlled by Democrats, but appropriations require a two-thirds majority to pass.

On his health-care plan, Schwarzenegger tried to sidestep Republican orthodoxy against higher taxes by calling for an increase in "fees" to pay for expanded state coverage.

"Whether or not a fee is a tax, whatever you call it, in his proposal we would not support it," said state Senate Republican leader Dick Ackerman. "There's some areas in here which we support and some areas we don't support. He's proposing covering illegal immigrants, and that we do not support."

Schwarzenegger just has to try, though, said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst at the University of Southern California.

"He's Arnold. I mean, really, that's part of the equation," Jeffe said. "He wants to leave something behind. He took a chance, he ran for governor, he won, he won reelection and he's a competitor. He wanted to be Mr. Universe. He wants to be remembered as a serious, effective, successful governor."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company