Thursday, May 26, 2005

Schwarzenegger's decline

Californians Aren't Wild About Schwarzenegger or His 'Reforms'

George Skelton
Capitol Journal

May 26, 2005

It's not working. Not any of it. Not the rallies. Not the talk radio. Not the photo ops. Not the TV ads.

Especially not the record fundraising.

Here's a governor trying to sell himself as a "reformer" and raising political pot loads from special interests, much of it out of state. It gives new meaning to the term "political outsider."

"People don't want him in Florida raising money. They want him here fixing problems," says Republican political analyst Tony Quinn. "It's something these politicians don't seem to understand. As he raises special interest money, his mystique with the voters drops. Gray Davis is the best example of that."

Ask pollster Mark Baldassare to describe the current attitude of Californians toward Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and he replies without hesitation: "Disappointment."

People are disappointed in all of Sacramento, the pollster adds. They had been hopeful after the Davis recall. Now they're back being grouchy.

Baldassare, who polls for the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California, released a new survey Wednesday. About the only good news for Schwarzenegger is that he hasn't fallen farther into the tank than he was a month ago. But he hasn't started to climb out either.

Some key findings:

• Only 40% of adults approve of how Schwarzenegger is handling his job, compared with 60% in January and 64% a year ago.

• The Legislature shouldn't gloat. Its approval rating is even lower, at 26%, the lowest since the 2003 recall campaign. A year ago, it was 40%.

So there's a cause-and-effect here that's easy to see: Schwarzenegger constantly ridicules the Legislature. Democrats continually attack him. Both sides are effective, in a murder-suicide sort of way. Schwarzenegger also picked a fight with teachers, nurses, firefighters and cop unions and got badly beaten up.

• The public mood is sour; 57% think California is headed in "the wrong direction," up 13 points from a year ago.

• Schwarzenegger's idea of a special election, costing $70-million-plus in tax money, is very unpopular. Only 33% support it, down 12 points since January. Another 61% want to wait until the next regular election in June 2006 to vote on the governor's "reforms."

But Schwarzenegger sees himself leading a people's rebellion to force government reform. He warned legislators in his State of the State speech that if they together didn't reform government, "the people will rise up and reform it themselves. And I will fight with them."

A new Schwarzenegger biography traces the governor's early fascination with charismatic leaders who move people. It may help explain why he has focused on trying to rally the masses rather than negotiate with a coequal branch of government, to his detriment.

The book, "Fantastic: The Life of Arnold Schwarzenegger," is written by veteran biographer Laurence Leamer, who also wrote a Kennedy family trilogy.

"Arnold admired such leaders as Charlemagne and Napoleon, who could take the inert, passive masses and forge them into a force to make history," Leamer writes. "As an Austrian, he had learned how Hitler had mesmerized the Austrian and German peoples."

Leamer quotes Schwarzenegger from 1975 interviews for a bodybuilding movie, "Pumping Iron." " 'I admired Hitler, for instance, because he came from being a little man with almost no formal education, up to power. And I admire him for being such a good public speaker and his way of getting to the people and so on. But I didn't admire him for what he did with it.' "

The author writes: "Arnold had parsed Hitler down the middle, celebrating the messianic skills and energy that brought him to power and detesting his abuse of that power…. Arnold believed that what America needed was a great leader with all the messianic skills of Hitler, but for good, not evil."

But whatever messianic skills Schwarzenegger possesses have been failing him. And so has the TV ad campaign aimed at selling Schwarzenegger and his spending "reform." In fact, people are ambivalent about his whole reform agenda, the Baldassare poll finds.

Examples:

• People give him much lower marks today than in January for "reforming" government — 40% approval now, 58% then.

• There isn't much enthusiasm for the governor's spending cap proposal. Only 43% support it. People like the idea of a cap (60%). But, by 2 to 1, they oppose a feature that would allow a governor to cut spending without legislative approval. That is being attacked as a "power grab."

• Redistricting reform leaves people cold. Only 41% support Schwarzenegger's proposal to strip the Legislature of its power to redistrict legislative and congressional seats. In fact, 52% say the system needs only "minor changes" or is "fine the way it is."

This is a different Schwarzenegger than a year ago — less conciliatory and compromising, more caustic and combative.

"He's rallying people in a different way," Baldassare notes. "He's still rallying his own core supporters. But he's also rallying the Democrats against him. He's a rallying figure — but not in a way he intended."

What would work for him?

• Forget the special election, saving money for grateful taxpayers.

• Do a mea culpa and return the $3.1 billion he promised schools in a budget deal last year.

• Negotiate a bipartisan spending cap, with less of a power grab and a softer hit to schools.

• Place the cap and redistricting on next June's ballot.

• Cool the money-raising.

• Turn the charm back on.

The alternative: Keep sliding into the common pool of political mediocrity.

http://www.latimes.com/news/columnists/la-me-cap26may26,0,2927336.column?coll=la-home-headlines
GEORGE SKELTON CAPITOL JOURNAL

Reach the columnist at george.skelton@latimes.com.
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