TCS Daily

Don't Call it a Comeback (Yet)...

By Michael Rosen - October 14, 2005 12:00 AM

Just a few months ago, conventional wisdom had all but written Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's eulogy, complete with all the shopworn Terminator clichés fit to print.

The "Governator's" approval ratings were in the high 30's. The Democrats in the Assembly and Senate had stymied his reform agenda at almost every turn. His attempt to bypass the California Legislature and take his case directly to the people was in jeopardy as several of his initiatives were floundering. As little as 28% of Californians approved of the special election he called (California's fourth statewide election in as many years).

Worst of all, according to a Field Poll, positive opinion of Schwarzenegger hovered perilously close to the level of his ousted predecessor, Gray Davis.

Much of this bad news was attributed to a vehement and intensely personal advertising campaign against the governor on the part of the various unions, who had much to lose if the initiatives succeeded. Beginning in late spring, the airwaves have been blanketed with "everyday" teachers, workers, and parents lambasting the governor -- depicted in dull and grainy footage that would embarrass the National Enquirer's editorial staff -- for his betrayal of schools and families.

Rather than respond in kind, the governor and his supporters held their tongues (and checkbooks) until about six weeks before the November election. This rope-a-dope aimed to lure Arnold's opponents into a state of complacency; the trap would be sprung in late September when the governor, we were told, would finally go on the offensive.

Has this peculiar stratagem worked?

Spectacularly so. A Survey USA poll taken in the beginning of October found all of the governor's initiatives favored by wide margins, some by more than 20 points. Other polls have confirmed these findings.

Schwarzenegger's internal polling showed more than 60% support for the initiatives as recently as mid-September, even as his own personal approval remained mired in the mid-30's. Since then, he formally announced that he would seek reelection in 2006, perhaps persuading voters that he's in this for the long haul.

The governor's disappointing personal support also surely reflects the hammering he's taken during sitcom commercial breaks for four months. As he takes the fight to the people, his own ratings are sure to improve.

But amazingly, the rotten tomatoes flung at Arnold himself have not clung to his policies.

The discrepancy between support for Schwarzenegger and for his initiatives is quite revealing.

This gap gives the lie to the narrative on offer from many California liberals to explain away Arnold's election during the 2003 recall campaign, namely that Californians are by and large very liberal but were star-struck by Schwarzenegger's persona, not his ideas.

In fact, the very opposite appears to be true: the simple, straightforward, and essentially conservative reforms that Arnold has set forth have become rather appealing to Californians, who have proven themselves more conservative than generally thought on the issues themselves, if not necessarily in the officials they elect. (Both the Assembly and the Senate are dominated by Democrats). As Republican State Senator Tom McClintock -- who garnered 13.5% of the gubernatorial vote in the recall election and who is now seeking the lieutenant governorship -- is fond of saying, when it comes to actual policies, California is still very much Reagan country.

But what exactly are the issues in this election that have elicited such high levels of support? The Schwarzenegger-sponsored initiatives are as follows:

* Proposition 74 requires five years of satisfactory service -- instead of two - before a teacher can earn lifetime tenure in the state school system, which embarrassingly ranks among the lowest in the nation. The teachers unions are up in arms over this measure and, according to the governor and his supporters, are approaching bankruptcy after spending tens of millions of dollars on their ad campaign. The California Teachers Association has even reportedly had to raise member dues by $60 per year to cover its political costs.

Californians appear to appreciate the delicious irony involved in the union's argument, on one hand, that the state spends far too little on schools (read: administrators' and teachers' salaries) and its expenditure, on the other, of more than $50 million of its administrators' and teachers' union dues, money that could better be spent improving the quality of education. By an 11-point margin, according to Survey USA, Golden Staters are siding with Arnold and against the unions.

* Proposition 75 has organized labor even more terrified. This initiative would prohibit public employee unions from spending union dues for political purposes without the written consent of its members. The measure has the potential of fundamentally shifting the balance of power in Sacramento away from the unions and the Democratic legislators they heavily influence. It is also premised on common sense: why shouldn't individual workers be able to control whether their hard-earned salaries fund political causes they oppose?

Foes of Prop 75 argue that the unions shouldn't have to disarm unilaterally when corporations enjoy unfettered use of shareholder profits for political advocacy. The difference, of course, is that shareholders can easily and quickly sell the stock of any company whose political contributions they abhor; they can also swiftly replace the sold shares with those of any other company.

By contrast, union members -- especially in closed-shop industries -- cannot simply renounce their union memberships, unless they're also willing to quit their jobs. As one San Diego AFL-CIO member wryly observed, "the only institution I know of where you have mandatory political dues is the Communist Party." This predicament is especially treacherous in the public sector where unionization is most widespread.

All told, according to recent polling, Californians favor the measure by a whopping 60%-37% as Republicans have successfully (and perhaps surprisingly) depicted themselves as the party of workers' rights.

* Proposition 76 would impose a cap on state spending growth, essentially requiring that the budget grow no faster than tax receipts and other state revenues. Known as the "live-within-our-means" measure, Prop 76 embodies an easy-to-follow, agreeable way to limit government sprawl. Spending grew by more than 40% during the Davis administration, i.e. between 1998 and 2004, far outstripping revenue growth. The initiative calls for the creation of rainy-day funds as well. So far, residents of the Golden State approve of this limited government measure by a 58-36 margin.

* Finally, Proposition 77 would dramatically reconfigure the way that California's Congressional and legislative districting lines are drawn. Currently, as in most other states, the legislature creates its own districts every 10 years on the basis of census data. The system has bred an unhealthy political stasis in which of 153 congressional and legislative seats up for grabs in the 2004 election, not a single one changed party hands.

The initiative would create a panel of three retired judges that would propose new district lines, subject to voter approval. The leadership of the legislature would select the judges on this panel, which would be as bipartisan (or nonpartisan) as possible, given the circumstances. The measure has provoked no small amount of controversy among both Republicans and Democrats; incumbents eager to retain their seats are understandably wary.

But the conflict of interest inherently involved in having legislators draw their own district lines, especially in the cauldron of California politics, aboil with interest groups smothering elected officials, is at long last striking a chord among voters. Even the San Francisco Chronicle has editorialized in favor of Prop 77. By and large, Republicans have lined up behind the measure in the hope that it will bring more competitiveness to local races and greater balance to Sacramento. Californians, by a 59-36 margin, seem to agree.

Other initiatives not formally sponsored by the governor -- proposing parental notification and prescription drug benefits -- appear headed for passage as well. Taken together, these measures embody simple, fair solutions to problems plaguing the Golden State.

The usual "to-be-sures" are, as always, in order: a lot could change between now and November 1; the unions will become ever more aggressive as their chokehold on power slips further; Arnold could always put his foot in his mouth at an inopportune moment.

Still, the fundamentals look strong and, with any luck, the initiatives will sail through handily. Success would signal a comeback for Schwarzenegger and, more noticeably and more significantly, for the future of common-sense conservative principles in California.

Michael M. Rosen, a TCS contributing writer, is an attorney in San Diego.



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