TCS Daily

A Golden Opportunity

By Stephen Bainbridge - November 18, 2005 12:00 AM

Okay, so I was wrong.

Last month I predicted that the four initiatives sponsored by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger would carry during last Tuesday's special election. They did not. Mea maxima culpa.

But what went wrong? And how can Arnold, and California conservatives, pick up the pieces?

For one thing, strategy, tactics, and money played a large role in the defeat of the measures (all eight ballot initiatives went down, some by more than 30 points). The unions reportedly spent nearly $150 million in an effort to beat back Propositions 74 (which would have extended the minimum length of service before awarding public school teachers tenure), 75 (which aimed to require unions to obtain member consent before expending dues on political causes), and 76 (which would have capped state spending).

According to one estimate, both sides spent $90 million on television ad buys ($60 million by the unions), with $30 million blown on ads in the last two weeks alone. The leading teacher's union was even forced to raise its member dues in order to hamper passage of the governor's propositions. Californians were bombarded at every commercial break by attack after attack, a fate to which I have cruelly, continually been consigned as I wade through my backlog of TiVo'd programs from before the election. Some observers suggest that voters were so angry about the quality and quantity of ads that they decided to vote no on everything out of (misplaced) spite.

Supporters of the measures were outspent by a factor of four or five to one. They also got off to a very late start defending the governor and his policies. Although this tactic appeared initially to pay some dividends, it seems I was "spectacularly" wrong in praising its success. Governor Schwarzenegger was battered early and often by the unions' ads and his counterattack was too little and far too late.

Larry Greenfield, the California Director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, told me that the governor should have considered timing the special election to have preceded the dip in his approval rating.

But other factors were at play, too. In some ways, Arnold has become the victim of his own -- and California's -- success. Swept into office two years ago by a wave of voter disgust with then-Governor Gray Davis and the $38 billion budget shortfall he spawned, the Governator romped to easy victories in several ballot initiatives in 2004, including a $15 billion bond package that bridged much of the deficit.

Indeed, California is now running a budget surplus of over $5 billion, thanks to a surging economy and Schwarzenegger-sponsored spending cuts and entitlement restructuring (most notably in workers' compensation).

As one Republican official I spoke with observed, "the Governor's team chose to take what they could in 2004, then come back for more in 2005." But because the perception of a crisis dissipated due to Arnold's actions, the official told me, voters balked at consummating the reform initiated by the recall. Other pundits echo this observation and contend that Arnold squandered his considerable political capital.

So what can the governor do now and how can his supporters help resuscitate reform?

Daniel Weintraub -- reporter for the Sacramento Bee, author of the influential California Insider blog, and one of the foremost pundits on capitol politics -- opined after the election that the governor will have no choice but to compromise with the legislature on the various measures that went down to defeat.

But others dismiss the compromise approach as a red herring: dangerous for the governor and, at any rate, impossible, since the unions and the Democratic legislature whose strings they pull -- flush from victory at the polls -- have no incentive to work with Arnold.

Greenfield told me that "the Governor should now stick to his reform agenda, including a hopeful, extended hand to centrists of both parties, but a clear understanding that leftist policymakers are going to drive businesses from this state, harming the state economy, and with it, the national one." Schwarzenegger will unquestionably have to work with the legislature but he must walk a tightrope between compromise and principle.

The Republican official I spoke with suggested that the governor invite politically savvy conservative state legislators -- such as Assemblyman Ray Haynes -- into his administration to help his team navigate the Sacramento minefield in a sophisticated fashion.

Ultimately, Greenfield says, "California Republicans are raising all the right issues and are on the right side of budget and political reform." Let's hope the governor -- who will face a stiff re-election battle next year -- can lick his wounds, learn from his mistakes, and maintain the pressure for reform.

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


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