Bill Whalen: Politi-Cal

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20-Inch Biceps . . . and What Else?

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What would a week in California be without an Arnold Schwarzenegger legacy story? This time it’s the New York Times’ turn to weigh in on the gains and setbacks of the big man’s nearly seven years in office. 

The Gray Lady’s take: Arnold is, in essence, the Jay Gatsby of California politics. He’s a self-made man, his administration has been one fabulous party, but deep-down he’s lonely . . . thanks to an independent streak that’s alienated Republicans, Democrats and a lot of special interests in between. 

Because NYT stories typically have the look and feel of outsiders looking in (not to mention that they rarely resist mentioning the Governator’s fabulous 20-inch biceps), I think an important point was overlooked: Arnold is not so much isolated (this is not a man who will live in political exile) as he is a governor who’s attempting to go full circle, back to his desire to be remembered as a landmark political reformer and the true successor to the legendary Hiram Johnson, California’s governor from 1911-17. 

Let’s go back in time to September 18, 2003, and the Sacramento Railroad Museum (perfect imagery, as Johnson’s legacy was taking on and defeating California’s powermongering railroad barons). 

In a speech set up to brand Arnold as the second coming of the great progressive reformer, then-recall candidate Schwarzenegger unveiled a host of ideas meant to clean up the ethical and moral mess in state government: handing over political redistricting to appellate court justices; banning fundraising while the state budget’s still in play; a constitutional amendment in support of open-meeting laws; banning the “gut and amend” practice that puts bills to a final legislative vote without so much as committee or public review. 

But that didn’t work — the newly elected governor didn’t have much of an appetite for the heavy lifting of dragging state government into the 21st Century. So Schwarzenegger traded in “the next Hiram Johnson” for a new role: “the next Pat Brown” — meaning, he wanted to be remembered California’s next great builder

Hiram Johnson


The problem, as Arnold soon discovered: the state’s out of money, it’s deeply in debt, and voters are in a foul mood. Thus selling the concept of unleashing the government to build hydrogen highways and revamp schools, hospitals and waterways just isn’t feasible (witness the decision to bail for now on Prop 18, the multi-billion-dollar water-bond initiative that seemed destined for a belly-flop at the polls this fall). 

So what to do next?

Why not . . . go back to Hiram Johnson? 

Which is what Arnold has done — a gubernatorial 360. 

Last month, after the voters’ passage of Proposition 14, Schwarzenegger was back in full-fledged Hiram mode. In a radio/video address, he declared that the open primary and redistricting reform (Proposition 11, approved in November 2008) have spawned the most dramatic political reform in California in 100 years — yes, right about Hiram Johnson’s time.  

The New York Times piece continued theme: Arnold as a champion of political reform, and a true agent of change. 

This is one of those times when there’s some truth to the spin: redistricting reform and open primaries potentially could dramatically alter California’s political landscape. And Schwarzenegger deserves credit if indeed the change results in a better form of elections and representative government. 

Makes you wonder what else Arnold might’ve accomplished, had he stayed on track after that promising speech at the Railroad Museum.


Written by Bill Whalen

July 12, 2010 at 8:12 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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