Arnold vs. old-style politics

Budget impasse, "girlie men" stall Schwarzenegger.

Published July 19, 2004 1:27PM (EDT)

Since coming to power as governor of California last year Arnold Schwarzenegger has seemed invincible. Opponents were pulverised in the election, critics have been seduced, indolent legislators have had their skulls cracked together by the last action hero.

The popularity of the movie star turned republican politician and his larger-than-life political style  his favourite meeting spot is a tent erected outside his Sacramento office to allow him to puff on cigars in defiance of the building's smoking ban  suggested that he could fulfil his promise to do away with the internecine fighting of politics as usual.

But all that has come unstuck with his first real political test since being elected governor. Despite his pledges to foster a non-partisan spirit in the state capital, Sacramento, and to make local government work more efficiently, Schwarzenegger has been unable to win approval for his $103bn state budget.

As California limps into its third week without a budget Schwarzenegger turned his ire on the Democrat politicians he accuses of holding up the budget, accusing them of working for "special interests: the unions, the trial lawyers  I call them girlie men. They should get back to the table, and they should finish the budget."

Even the governator's Republican colleagues have been heard to mutter that Schwarzenegger has turned out to be just like all the other politicians: ineffectual, beholden to interest groups, and outmanoeuvred by the in-built inertia of the political process.

Late last week the governor pledged to "fight like a warrior" to pass his budget and derided his opponents for creating chaos through their partisanship. "There is chaos here," he told a press conference. "There is no budget."

Over the weekend he was out campaigning, dispensing with his customary talk of bipartisanship to lambast the Democrats for stalling the budget and threatening to target intransigent Democrat politicians with the full force of his celebrity.

"I was the Terminator on the screen," he told one group of mainly teenagers at the California Pizza Kitchen in Long Beach, south of Los Angeles. "I'm going to terminate the big problems in Sacramento right now in real life."

The Democratic leader of the California senate, John Bruton, a veteran Californian politician, criticised Schwarzenegger for grandstanding. "There's nothing new happening here that hasn't happened with every governor that I can remember around budget time," he told the Los Angeles Times. "And he should either have known that or should get used to it or just realise that he was elected governor and to my knowledge  I haven't checked it out  may not have been elected God."

The problems began some time between the announcement of Schwarzenegger's budget plan in mid-May and the start of the new financial year on July 1. That he had made much of the importance of not missing the deadline in his election campaign, lambasting the administration of his predecessor and state legislators for leaving the state budgetless, added to the irony of the situation.

The day before the deadline he had even gone as far as to assert that "there is a whole new mood in Sacramento. Business as usual  politics as usual  is out of the window."

But according to those familiar with the budget negotiations, the governor let things drift between May and the end of June, assuming that his popularity and his implicit threat to go over the heads of state legislators and appeal directly to the voters would suffice to pass his budget.

The reality was somewhat different as negotiations became stymied in the opposition of Democrats and Republicans. "This is dij` vu all over again," Republican Assemblyman Keith Richman told the LA Times. "Last year Democrats refused to make spending reductions because they were concerned about people dying in the street. And Republicans refused to raise taxes. So what did we do? We borrowed $18 billion and rolled the problem over another year. Now Democrats are unwilling to make spending reductions and Republicans are unwilling to raise taxes and fees. It's the same. It does have to change."

Faced with continuing wrangling in the state capital and the impasse over his budget last weekend Schwarzenegger did what he does best: he took to the road. But the road was a short one  it took him as far as a diner on the outskirts of Sacramento, where he surprised brunchers by appearing in their midst, media in tow, to tell them that he was still the "Kindergarten Cop" and that the state legislature consisted of "120 children". The remark didn't go down well with his Sacramento colleagues.

"That may help build his persona," Fabian Nuqez, the Democratic speaker of the senate told the LA Times. "It may be helpful to the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie when they do that. But it doesn't help solve the budget."

The governor continued to campaign but the brakes of political procedure stopped the celebrity politician's juggernaut. John Bruton dismissed the campaigning. "That is part of the governor's gestalt," he said. "He likes the crowd and he likes to go out. And that is fine with me. Gestalt. You can look it up. It's a German word meaning gestalt."

One adviser to the previous, Democratic, governor told the San Francisco Examiner that Schwarzenegger "was overly optimistic that a charming personality ... and sheer force of will could get the legislature to do its job. He's been larger than life until now. This has exposed him as a mere mortal," said Garry South.

That the Californian budget has been passed late in nine of the past 11 years serves both to underline the difficulty of the task facing Schwarzenegger and to emphasise his vulnerability in fiscally challenging times.

He has not been helped by the political elite's obsession with this November's presidential election. With budgetary standstill a contentious political issue in California, both Republicans and Democrats are keen to paint each other as the stick-in-the-muds responsible for any delay. Neither side has been above engineering a delay to make it look as if their opponents are delaying the budget.

But more seriously his personal style has come in for concerted criticism from all sides as a series of deals he made in the run up to the budget have started to unravel. He has been accused of double-dealing, of telling both left and right what they want to hear.

To Schwarzenegger this is the political art of compromise, and he has trumpeted compromise as sensible non-partisan political practice. But to others the approach reeks of weakness and a lack of principle.

"Schwarzenegger loves to be loved," wrote the West Coast columnist Dan Walters in the influential daily Sacramento Bee. "The corollary to that preoccupation with popularity is Schwarzenegger's evident penchant for telling people what they want to hear, rather than what they need to hear.

"In Hollywood, everyone is always pitching something (Schwarzenegger calls himself a 'salesman by nature'), everyone always talks in positive superlatives, and no one believes anyone."

But the disarming politics-for-beginners mood may have changed. "We'll see how [legislators] respond after tasting steel for 72 hours," said Rob Stitzman, Schwarzenegger's communications director.

The impassioned tone of the governor's words over the past few days, by turns tetchy and humorous, suggest that he has woken up to the grubby reality of politics.

By Dan Glaister

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