July 19, 2004

JOHN FUND:

Locked in a stalemate with the Democratic legislature over the state budget, Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger abandoned his charm campaign this weekend and went on the attack. He toured three districts of vulnerable Democratic incumbents and accused them of being “obstructionists” and “girlie men,” in a takeoff of that old “Saturday Night Live” skit that parodied Schwarzenegger-like bodybuilders.

But the governor was engaged in a lot more than just sound-bite politics. His spokesman indicated he was seriously considering sponsoring initiatives to both change the entrenched legislature to part-time status and to redraw California’s gerrymandered political districts. “This weekend, the budget fight stopped being about local government and started being about major political reform,” said Dan Schnur, a GOP political consultant.

The California electorate is hungry for such change, and the governor had large crowds in three cities eating out of his hand. “I want you to go out there and go after those Democratic legislators. Vote them out of office, and we will put new faces in there,” he said in Stockton. The audience in Ontario went wild when he launched into a description of how legislators catered to special interests: “If they don’t have the guts to come up here in front of you and say, ‘I don’t want to represent you, I want to represent those special interests, the unions, the trial lawyers, and I want them to make the millions of dollars — if they don’t have the guts, I call them girlie men.”

Democrats responded that the remark was sexist, anti-gay and bullying, but given the lighthearted way Mr. Schwarzenegger delivered the remarks those criticisms aren’t likely to gain traction. Democrats must also realize that the governor’s approval ratings are close to 70% while the legislature’s ratings are a measly 30%.

If Mr. Schwarzenegger moved quickly he could qualify an initiative mandating new boundaries for California’s 120 legislative districts and then hold a special election next May. That ballot could also contain an initiative to create a part-time legislature, which might prove popular with a frustrated public. “He could pass an initiative,” says Bob Stern of the Center for Governmental Studies, a Los Angeles think tank. “He could get 60%. It would pass easily.” Democratic legislators may yet come to regret that through their intransigence on the budget they have unleashed the political Terminator.

As a bodybuilder, Schwarzenegger was very good at playing on his opponents’ insecurities. I guess he still is.

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