Chait’s article, written more than nine months ago, got one big thing wrong. Chait argued that Trump “would almost certainly lose” the presidential election, due to the candidate’s propensity to offend and alienate minorities, single women and those with a college education.
But it's worth looking at Chait’s other prediction -- that in seeking out popularity above all else, Trump could prove to be a more effective administrator than liberals might currently assume.
Schwarzenegger came into office with a tenuous grasp of policy. Like Trump, his campaign offered few specific policy proposals, beyond the assurance that Schwarzenegger would get things done. “At the time, the prospect of Schwarzenegger governing America’s largest state struck many of us as just as ghastly as the idea of a Trump presidency seems now,” Chait wrote.
But after a rocky first few years in office – in which Schwarzenegger blew a massive hole in the California's budget after slashing a vehicle licensing fee – he ended up forging a number of notable compromises. He pushed through new rules to prevent law-making from re-drawing legislative districts, and made substantial reforms to the prison system, including removing juveniles and nonviolent offenders from prisons.
Schwarzenegger also attempted to introduce universal healthcare in California, echoing the program introduced by Mitt Romney during his governorship in Massachusetts. That measure subsequently failed in the state senate. But when Obamacare was announced, Schwarzenegger became the country’s first governor to embrace it and created a state exchange to implement it against the opposition of the Republican Party.
His policy accomplishment most celebrated by liberals was passing a landmark global warming law calling for California to cut its emissions level by a quarter by 2020. That law went through against the opposition of the California Chamber of Commerce, which had backed Schwarzenegger in his initial run for governor.
As New America Foundation fellow Joe Matthews told Time magazine about Schwarzenegger, "He did us a great service because he tried everything. He fought with people, he circumvented the legislature and went to the ballot measure, he compromised, he tried for spending caps, rainy day funds, raising taxes, cutting programs, working with the Republicans, working with the Democrats.”
Chait suggests that Schwarzenegger was able to accomplish these tasks because he wasn’t wedded to Republican Party orthodoxy. "He joined the GOP because he vaguely shared its veneration of wealth and success," he wrote. "The only thing Schwarzenegger really craved was popularity. Running for office as an exercise in ego gratification may not be as good a thing as running as a serious candidate with good ideas, but it’s much better than running as a serious candidate with bad ideas."
Chait's assessment may be too sanguine. Though he appeased liberals in some ways, Schwarzenegger left California in a precarious financial position -- and with an approval rating of just 22 percent. The state's outstanding debt had tripled under his watch and California saw its credit ratings downgraded. In-state tuition soared, and new gaps opened in the state's safety net.
By the end of his administration, Schwarzenegger admitted that he was delivering a budget mess to his successor -- Jerry Brown -- “just like I did the first year when I came into office.” The state owed $91 billion, compared to $34 billion when he took over -- a challenge Brown has spent much of his tenure addressing.
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