Schwarzenegger Wasted Chance to Reform Calif.

The election results in California are more than a setback for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.  They represent an entirely unnecessary defeat for Republicans, and a repudiation of needed public policy reforms that conservatives enthusiastically favored.

This is a special election that the governor never should have called, because it was virtually certain the governor, never having made a case for it, would lose. Still, what happened has national repercussions.

After all, for conservatives around the country, not-always-so-liberal California often has often pointed the way.  Nearly 40 years ago (when I was a leader of Youth for Reagan), our state elected Ronald Reagan as governor.   A decade and a half later, Reagan became president and went on to end the cold war.

California over the last generation has led the nation in ballot initiatives.  Compared to other states, we spend the most on initiative measures (opposing sides will spend a record – more than a quarter billion dollars on this special election).  The state has passed contentious ballot propositions that have been copied elsewhere.  Indeed, measures like Proposition 13 (properly tax limits), Proposition 187 (limiting government benefits to illegal immigrants), Proposition 209 (prohibiting government race and gender preferences) Proposition 226 (ending bilingual education), and Proposition 22 (defining marriage as man-woman) have shaped the national debate.

In rejecting ballot propositions Tuesday, voters thus appeared to have repudiated an important reform of teacher tenure in public schools that would have made make it easier to fire incompetent teachers; a reform with particular national implications—to limit the power of public employee unions to coerce member contributions, a reform to control runaway state government spending and prevent growing deficits; and a reform to redistrict legislative boundaries to make the districts more competitive. 

What has Schwarzenegger accomplished?  By endorsing Proposition 75 (“paycheck protection”) he took it from a huge lead to defeat.  Without this special election, Proposition 75 would have been on next year’s ballot and had better chance to win. 

Perhaps the most amazing result is Proposition 73, requiring parental notification when a girl wants to have an abortion.  This was always expected to win—even in California.  But the anti-Schwarzenegger tide (vote no) defeated it.

The pharmaceutical companies took the Republican Party for a ride. They wanted to defeat Proposition 79, a proposed drug discount program.  Their alternative measure (Proposition 78) was just for show.  They spent nearly $90 million, two or three times what was actually needed. 

The drug companies even paid former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown $1,000 an hour, for 450 hours.  (This almost convinced me to sell my stock in these companies.)  Anyway, they did confuse voters, with the predictable rejection of both measures.  But this “no” momentum helped insure the already likely defeat of Schwarzenegger’s four propositions. Oddly, the Republican Party, in working jointly with the pharmaceutical companies, effectively has sabotage Gov. Schwarzenegger.

What this election, as a whole, did was to blend Schwarzenegger’s political personality, which was in self-inflicted grave disrepair, with his ballot measures, which became hostage to his declining popularity.  In other words, slating these ballot propositions with Schwarzenegger made no sense. 

Schwarzenegger’s team says the rejection of all the propositions on the ballot proves that the electorate was in a negative mood.  Actually, it just proves the special election was a bad idea.  They can’t have it both ways—to argue they were the victim of circumstance because the electorate rebelled against this special election that they created.

Even by California standards, where typically the least incompetent (but still very costly) campaign wins, we ended up with quite a mess.  For example, Schwarzenegger’s ballot propositions spent nearly a million dollars on polling, which supposedly showed the special election was viable and that his ballot measures would win.  Earlier in the year, the Schwarzenegger camp disputed public polls that showed Schwarzenegger’s propositions would not fare well.

The problem, Schwarzenegger’s consultants and spinners insisted spuriously, was that the public polls consistently worded the measures as they appeared on the ballot.  Schwarzenegger’s pollsters “explained” the measures to respondents.  This was curious scamming, even by California standards. 

In mid-October, the respected Hoover Institute published its own poll that showed three of Schwarzenegger’s ballot propositions winning.  The governor’s spinners criticized the media for not reporting these results began actively circulating the numbers, because they contrasted sharply with the three major public media polls. 

Schwarzenegger’s spinners insisted that their own “internal” polls (his polling firms were McLaughlin & Associates and Public Opinion Strategies) showed they were gaining, even ahead.  Here’s the rub:  the “internal” polls by Schwarzenegger’s opponents showed his ballot propositions going down.

Finally, on the eve of the election, the Hoover Institute released a new poll showing three of Schwarzenegger’s ballot propositions losing.  The governor’s spinners conveniently ignored that poll.  The real problem is that Hoover Institute relied on new, unproven methodology using “web-enabled panels,” that is voters chosen in advance to respond on the Internet.  There were wide gyrations in numbers.  For example, the Schwarzenegger-endorsed Proposition 73, parental notification for abortions, went from a 58%-42% lead to a 56%-44% loss. In other words, from +16 to -12. 

These seeming variations will reinforce the mythology that the Schwarzenegger camp now wants to spread.  That is, the special election was always viable.  Their ad campaign was working, and their ballot propositions were gaining.  And, by my mid-October, their measures were leading.  But something happened near the end of the campaign.  We’ve heard that story before, especially here in California.  But this sort of explanation helps of mysterious forces helps pacify major donors, so they ante up again next time.

This has happened repeatedly in California.  Republican pollsters have “better” numbers.  They are not more accurate numbers, they just sound better. For example, years ago, for example, in the Dan Lungren for governor campaign.  We were repeatedly that he was a few points behind.  But the Gray Davis polls showed Lungren consistently behind in double digits and projected a landslide.

The spinning is especially amusing this time since the absentee voters comprised about 40% of the total turnout.  In other words, the closer to the Election Day, the greater the number of voters who already had voted.  And, in general, we know that voter opinion on ballot initiatives tends to change slowly, not quickly.

Before the election, the Schwarzenegger camp told us “the key” would be turnout.  We know what that means.  When you’re leading, you don’t talk much about turnout.  But when you’re losing, well…  And, when you finally do lose, you blame it on turnout.  How can someone refute that?

We’re now being told that things were inauspicious for Republicans.  Is it Iraq? The deficit? Karl Rove’s problems?  The leak investigation? Republican voters were dispirited, you’ll be told. They let the governor down.  Nonsense.  The governor’s team let him down.  And the governor let Republicans down.

Schwarzenegger himself is now much weaker for next year’s reelection than if he had not called this special election. That’s because he never advanced the rationale for it, and so he was inevitably going to lose, and big-time.  His vendors, arguably for reasons of self-interest, had decided on a special election even before it was known what would be decided.   He could sell anything, they naively argued.  But two of his original ballot measures did not even make it to the ballot. He had to withdraw them because of drafting problems.

Let’s talk context.  In recent years, Republican fortunes in California have suffered, not simply from unfavorable demographic changes, but from the party’s repeated and sometimes outrageous bumbling.  But the spectacular recall of Gov. Gray Davis was a gift to beleaguered Republicans , and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s triumphant election energized them.  

In that election, candidate Schwarzenegger faced a threat on the right from fellow Republican candidate State Sen. Tom McClintock.  Accordingly, Schwarzenegger seemed to become more conservative.  He ritualistically opposed state driver’s licenses for illegal aliens, though he personally expressed only security, not citizenship, reservations.  And, with Laureate Milton Friedman’s seal of approval, Schwarzenegger, as a candidate, appeared solid on fiscal issues.  In a campaign radio interview with Sean Hannity, Schwarzenegger was backed into opposing legalized same sex-marriage.  He reaffirmed this view when, as governor, he was desperate to secure his base for this special election, he vetoed same-sex marriage legislation.    

With his charismatic star-power, Gov.-elect Schwarzenegger had enormous potential when he came into office.  He had secured the Republican base, a majority of the independent vote, and had made meaningful inroads among Democrats.  This was the time for Schwarzenegger to keep his political virginity and to confront special interests, corporate and union.  He punted on both.  Encouraged by fundraisers paid on commission, Schwarzenegger raised a record amount in contributions, and from the usual suspects.  Soon, any pretense to populist conservatism was out the window, and he became just another politician.

He is an intelligent man and a gifted communicator.  But he became a vegetable, and it had nothing to do with steroids.  From the outset of his administration, his team needed to brief him with facts and arguments, and to create a strategy for him to shape public opinion. Instead, they emasculated him with staged events, as if they were trying to win an advance man’s competition.  Television news reported that he spoke to pre-selected audiences at contrived events.  Somehow, they made this muscle guy into the proverbial 90-pound weakling.  This dumping-down of Schwarzenegger was the beginning of his decline; the union ad campaign earlier this year against him was merely a symptom that exploited the opening.

Meanwhile, he had pretended last year that the state’s money woes could be resolved by borrowing money, rather than serious change.  He made much of a big tent, where he smoked cigars with Democrat legislative leaders.   They were weak, in awe.  He was strong, in command.  Even after Schwarzenegger had been in office for months, his job approval was more than 3-to-1 favorable.  With those numbers, he could have done much.

But what he chose to do is … nothing, or not exactly.  Inexplicably, he gave away the store.  Gov. Schwarzenegger threw his weight behind a $15-billion dollar bond measure, mainly to pay off the Gray Davis deficit he inherited.  But there was no quid pro quo for the Democrats:  they did not support major changes in the way the state budget is put together.  Schwarzenegger erred in postponing action on the spending side.  That major blunder helped lead, eventually, to Tuesday’s electoral disaster.  Schwarzenegger was surrounded, from the beginning, by competing tacticians who could not understand that bad policy would become bad politics.

He argued this was a one-time bailout.  But within months, he supported a new bond measure to put the state in the stem cell research business.  In his quest for political correctness, he ignored an opportunity to level with the voters that the state could not simply, without limit, borrow and spend.

You will hear that Schwarzenegger was an ideologue, too rigid, too confrontational, too polarizing.  The fact is he made a major blunder. He did not act decisively during his first year.  His second major blunder was going forward with this special election.

This year, Proposition 76 was Schwarzenegger’s constitutional amendment to fix the state’s antiquated budget process.  It was the supposedly real policy reason for the special election.  Because it never had a chance, he should not have called the special election.  Proposition 74, a poll-driven measure which included some reasonable teacher hiring and firing reforms, was doomed, because it could be grouped by opponents with 76.  The governor seized upon Proposition 77, the reapportionment measure, to try to explain why his campaigns for legislative candidates failed the prior year.  And he endorsed Proposition 75, so-called “paycheck protection” to require public employee union member approval for political contributions. 

As I said earlier, Proposition 75 would have had a better chance in a regular election.  Schwarzenegger wanted to associate with this virtually certain winner so if things went sour, he could take credit for at least one win.  But, at the end of the day, it was his slating of all four propositions that insured a universal defeat. 

The question is—would Schwarzenegger, the Republican Party, and the conservative movement been better off if this special election had not been held.  The answer is yes.

What a waste.