The Arnold is on the stump again. California's embattled Gov. Schwarzenegger is careening around America's mega-state once more, a blur of Hummer fumes, cigar smoke and tanning-salon-run-amok orange glow, in a desperate attempt to save his floundering political career.
The collapse of Arnold Schwarzenegger is one of the marvels of current American politics. Unlike President Bush, he's not responsible for a war gone awry or a rescue effort that was totally botched. Which makes the governor's fall from grace all the more dramatic and, ultimately, inexplicable.
As recently as February, a Field Poll showed that 56 percent of Californians were inclined to reelect the Governator for a second term in 2006, while just 42 percent were disinclined. Today those numbers have been flipped: In the new Field Poll, just 36 percent of Californians want to give Arnold a second term, while 56 percent don't. He trails the two announced Democratic candidates, who are almost as obscure as he is famous, by small margins.
Almost as unpopular as Arnold these days is the Nov. 8 special election he has foisted on state voters. Three years after the last regular gubernatorial election, two years after the recall, one year after the presidential ballot, and one year before the next statewide elections, California voters will schlep to the polls yet again this November to deal with three unpopular ballot measures that Schwarzenegger is sponsoring. In the current Field Poll, 57 percent of Californians say they oppose holding the special election at all.
California voters know all too well what an election in their state means: endless political advertising on the airwaves, a torrent of political material flooding their mailboxes and a cacophony of pre-recorded phone calls detailing the dire consequences if they don't vote the right way. They are, understandably, election-weary -- something that a politician who claims a populist mantle should be able to appreciate. All the more so when that politician ran, as Schwarzenegger did, on a platform of ending the gridlock in Sacramento so that the state's elected lawmakers could return to making laws and the state's residents could enjoy a respite from perpetual politics.
But the Arnold who ran as the non-politician par excellence, and as the centrist who could work with and command support from members of both parties, has been replaced by an Arnold who's shown little inclination to work both sides of the aisle and, indeed, who's taken out after the Democrats, their constituents and their causes. In a heavily Democratic state, this has led to predictable disaster.
Arnold's reign of error began late last year with his announcement that he sought to replace the pensions of state workers with 401(k) plans. Within days, the state's police and firefighter unions were on the air saying that this would terminate the survivor benefits for their widows and orphans, and Schwarzenegger quickly relented. He then opposed a bill mandating a certain nurse-to-patient staffing ratio in state hospitals, and compounded that gaffe by attacking the nurses as a "special interest" and extolling his pleasure in "kick[ing] their butts." The nurses, in uniform, have been demonstrating at every one of his high-dollar fundraisers ever since.
Schwarzenegger's biggest mistake came early this year, when he reneged on his agreement to resume funding K-12 education at the 40-percent-of-the-budget level mandated by state voters some years back. The California Teachers Association and other unions have saturated the airwaves since then, with ads featuring teachers, nurses, police officers and firefighters all railing at the governor's priorities. His numbers were already in free-fall when the story broke of his multimillion-dollar contract with American Media, which publishes bodybuilding magazines reliant on the advertising of the very nutritional supplements that the state legislature sought to regulate last year with a bill that Schwarzenegger -- before his financial interest in American Media was revealed -- vetoed.
So the anti-pol has become just another pol. Now, he's campaigning for his ballot measures, but the most important one -- Proposition 76, which would reduce the state's K-12 funding obligations and give the governor unilateral authority to cut the budget -- is trailing in the latest Field Poll by a mind-boggling margin of 65 percent to 19. Also on the ballot is a measure to restrict the election activities of public employee unions, which leads in current polling but which the unions believe they can defeat.
Later this week Schwarzenegger is expected to announce his candidacy for a second term. Who would have thought it would be such an uphill battle?