'Ahnold' Strikes Again

You’ve got to hand it to this guy Arnold Schwarzenegger. First, the famous muscle-man surprised the daylights out of everybody by announcing that he would run for governor of California, as a Republican no less, in the election that accompanied the recall of Democrat Gray Davis. Then he beat three-dozen rivals, including the anointed Democratic choice, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, in a state the wise men had long written off as permanently Democratic.

Naturally it was assumed that, having made his fortune in ridiculous movies, he knew nothing about politics, and wouldn’t know the difference between an initiative and a garden-variety pass. Instead, he turned out to know all the moves (in politics, that is), and scared the hell out of the Democratic majorities in the legislature by collecting signatures to put an initiative before the voters if the legislature refused to put legal limits on its own wildly-abused power to spend more than the state takes in. Having just racked up a deficit of $35 billion, the legislators knew the initiative would pass overwhelmingly, so at the last minute they crumpled, in return for a few concessions.

That was last year. This year the Terminator (who Democrats are beginning to suspect earned his nickname) quadrupled the bet, calling for no less than four major reforms:

  • Ending the drawing of legislative districts by the legislature itself (a cozy practice that has made all incumbents invulnerable), and turning it over to a bipartisan panel of retired judges.
  • Ending California’s debilitating “single salary” system (under which good and bad teachers receive exactly the same pay), and replacing it with a “merit pay” system (under which good teachers are paid more and the bad ones are fired).
  • Imposing serious controls on state spending: on education, on health care, on road repair and on a whole flock of other things; firing the unnecessary intermediate bureaucrats and focusing on the quality of state service.
  • Drastically revising the state pension system (passionately defended by scores of public employee unions), under which it is possible for some state employees to walk away after 20 years with 90 percent of their highest year’s salary.

Unless you live in California, and maybe not even then, you can’t imagine the uproar these proposals have caused in the quarters that benefited mightily under the old rules. If Schwarzenegger had merely proposed the reforms to the legislature, they would, of course, have been killed on Day One of the debate. But the governor is once again laying plans to put initiatives mandating these reforms before the voters this fall, if the legislature fails to enact them. So the cry went up: The initiatives must be killed at all costs! The unions alone have been planning to spend scores of millions of dollars to defeat them in November.

Just this month, Schwarzenegger seemed (to his delighted enemies) to buckle just slightly, when he announced that he was withdrawing the proposal for pension reform from this year’s package. It will be revived, he promises, in 2006. But the crafty rascal stands to benefit greatly from this move because it ends the need of most unions to spend huge sums of money on defeating the remaining package. On the contrary, they must hoard those millions for next year’s battle over the truly crucial issue of pensions.

So Arnold Schwarzenegger is demonstrating not only that he has enormous personal appeal among the voters, but that he knows exactly what reforms to propose to make California a sane and healthy state again. Worst of all, he is putting that personal appeal on the line in support of those reforms. It is a breathtaking performance, and one that deserves the thanks of every citizen of California.