Today Arnold Schwarzenegger leaves office as governor of perhaps the worst performing state economy in this country. It is indeed a deep irony that the movie star who came to take control of California’s fortunes after a recall of his (by comparison) surprisingly competent predecessor Gray Davis, has left this state in a far worse condition than in which he found it: A ballooning state debt , now slated to reach $25 billion by 2014; a gridlocked legislature; an unrepentant and emboldened union culture; environmental policies totally out of control and a bureaucracy that has swelled beyond reasonable imagination over the past seven years.
Schwarzenegger was the first governor since the Great Depression to issue IOUs to state employees and vendors after he was confronted with a $90 billion shortfall in 2009. He raised taxes ( violating a campaign promise) and curtailed spending on education. In my own neighborhood, public libraries were forced to substantially reduce hours of operation; the District Court would not stay open longer than 4: 30 pm because the supervisors feared having to pay overtime and the Department of Motor Vehicles slashed an entire work day from their branches’ operating schedules.
But you would barely know that Schwarzenegger retires as a failed governor. In most accounts of his stewardship, he is still the action hero who strode into office with great promise but was unfortunately dealt a bad deck of cards. The press seems loathe to truly take him to task for his maladroit performance and his abject failure of leadership. Pat Morrison’s fawning interview in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times is a good example. Rarely does Morrison,one of the paper’s leading columnists, go much beyond the giddy fan worship you would expect to find the paper’s Calendar section. No question about the Golden State’s embarrassing economic slide; no discussion about the State’s likely bankruptcy and nothing about the way in which government unions increasingly gained influence and control over state policy.
The failure of many media commentators and editorialists to savage Schwarzenegger for his limp performance is perhaps a symptom of a society that lives in thrall to celebrity. There is no doubt Schwarzenegger is a consummately charming man, possessed of a wicked sense of humor and a certain measure of self deprecation, which have all served him well in dealing with a combative public. But the convincing explanation of the press’ hero worship is that Schwarzenegger actually swapped parties while still in office. His volte face in October, 2005 after he was defeated on all eight special election initiatives he had proposed for dealing with some of California’s endemic economic problems, transformed him from a moderate Republican into a progressive Democrat who was prepared to embrace a host of hot button liberal agenda issues such as gay marriage, fixed emission controls for California industry and increased taxation.
This transformation left us with the odor of a man of few fixed convictions or principles and who was open to changing them as the political winds dictated. In the end Arnold Schwarzenegger’s seven year term of office differed little from his movie career. In both cases he regularly adopted differing personas to suit the script. The difference is that playing The Terminator never had dire implications for the future of California. Sadly, we are now reminded of how fantasy figures bear little resemblance to real life characters, who may turn out to have no good ideas about how to deal with the harsh realities of governing a fractious state.