A new poll shows that more and more Californians disapprove of their governor. And his wife wants him back home

Published April 15, 2005 2:55PM (EDT)

Something is rotten in the state of Arnold. Just five months ago the governor of California seemed unstoppable: Propositions were passed, opponents were reduced to "girlie men," and the talk was of Washington and the first foreign-born president of the United States. But in the wake of a series of political miscalculations, Gov. Schwarzenegger's poll ratings are in a slump, his closest colleagues are questioning his judgment and he has been forced to reduce his ambitious plans to make 2005 the "year of reform."

Schwarzenegger's mistake was to take on nurses, teachers, police officers and firefighters -- all at the same time. He couldn't have picked a more revered assembly. But the governor strode ahead regardless, convinced by his previous successes that he could overcome any obstacle. The polls said otherwise, and last week, in a rare public reversal, Schwarzenegger withdrew many of the proposals that had infuriated some voters and given ammunition to his political opponents.

"They should have had their ducks lined up before they launched this political war," said Dan Walters, a columnist and longtime observer of Californian politics for the Sacramento Bee newspaper. "It shows a lackadaisical attitude. If you do what he is doing, to confront these very powerful interest groups, then you're going to suffer some diminishing of popularity ... but you shouldn't add to your troubles needlessly."

The first indication that things were veering off track for Team Arnold came with his promise at the end of last year to "kick the butts" of nurses protesting against his proposals to reduce nurse-patient ratios. "Pay no attention to those voices over there," Schwarzenegger told a conference as it was disrupted by a group of nurses protesting against him. "They are the special interests. Special interests don't like me in Sacramento [California's capital] because I kick their butt."

Then, during his State of the State speech in January, his confidence, or perhaps his inexperience, got the better of him. He said he would take on special interests by introducing merit pay for teachers, reforming the pensions of state employees and redrawing constituencies. But a clause in the pension reform plan would have removed death and disability benefits from the system, leaving the grieving relatives of, for example, firefighters, stranded.

The protests started almost immediately. The California Nurses Association organized demonstrations at his normally discreet fundraising dinners at homes in the Hollywood hills and hotels in San Francisco. A light plane was a frequent uninvited guest at Schwarzenegger events, towing a banner through the skies reading "California is not for sale." Protesters even blocked the red carpet for a film premiere, forcing Schwarzenegger to enter the cinema through a side entrance.

Then another previously unseen phenomenon began to appear, this time on California's television screens: the anti-Arnold commercial. Teachers joined firefighters and nurses joined police officers to denounce Arnold's wicked ways.

"Governor Schwarzenegger, you ought to take your promises on education as seriously as we do," one teacher said in an advertisement sponsored by the California Teachers' Association.

"Our governor called nurses special interests after he stopped the new nurses staffing law," a nurse said in another ad. "But Schwarzenegger doesn't say a word about his own donations from the big drug and insurance companies: the real special interests that run Sacramento."

Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger's favored tactic of appealing directly to voters and circumventing the state Legislature was starting to lose its luster. The governor has promised to call a special election in November for a vote on his proposals. But this appears simply to have induced a public desire for politicians to get on with their jobs. Some 47 percent of respondents in a poll published last week felt the governor would not be right to bypass lawmakers and appeal directly to the voters through special ballots.

Some 49 percent agreed with the statement: "He's too interested in gimmicks, public relations and image." From a high of more than 60 percent last year, his approval rating has slipped steadily so far this year. Last week a poll put it at 49 percent, below 50 percent for the first time, and on the same day Schwarzenegger announced he was dropping several of his more contentious proposals.

"I have said to you many times that it makes no difference to me if someone says, you know, 'This was not as good as it could have been, and he pulled it back' ... What is important to me in the end is what's best for the state of California," he said.

"By leaving the field of battle now, he minimizes the fallout from the campaign," the University of Southern California's Elizabeth Garrett told the San Jose Mercury. "He reduces the opposition he's facing, and he focuses most of his strength on the other battles."

It remains to be seen whether the decision to tone down the pension reforms -- which would have made state pension benefits a function of stock market returns -- marks a return to the bipartisan promise that saw Schwarzenegger elected.

But his political project received a blow from another serious adversary last week. Maria Shriver, California's first lady, told an interviewer: "I want him back home. While I was always raised to believe that public service is the most noble calling, it's all-encompassing, and it's tough if you have young children. It's a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week job. So I want him back."

By Dan Glaister

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