By Marc Pitzke
The honeymoon is over: California's Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, once seen as the rising star of the Republican party, has lost the support of voters. His popularity is now lower than that of George W. Bush. With the loss of a referendum, his political future is now in doubt.
In times of crisis, US President George W. Bush likes to cling to the coat-tails of history. Recently, for example, he flew to California for the dedication of Ronald Reagan's presidential jet as it went on display to the public. The Boeing 707, Bush announced, was a "symbol of America's strength and resilience." The crowd applauded happily, among them the VIP elite of California's Republican community: Nancy Reagan, former Governor Pete Wilson, a host of Congressmen and Mayors.
Only one person was missing: Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Governor had excused himself from the festivities, saying he was "very busy".
Schwarzenegger was up to his neck in a crisis of his own. And more than that, he wasn't happy that Bush had chosen this of all times to wander into his territory, just as Schwarzenegger himself was struggling in the middle of a seemingly hopeless re-election campaign. During his quick stopover, Bush also managed to knock off another errand -- that of hosting a private fundraising dinner in Beverley Hills to pull in more than $1 million for the Republican Party coffers in Washington. Schwarzenegger, though, could really have used that money -- no wonder the governor was too busy to see the president.
Ratings even lower than Bush
The honeymoon is over. Two years after Schwarzenegger triumphantly moved into the Sacramento Capitol as a reformer and a mediator, his political future is in question. The 58-year-old retired action hero -- for a long time the most successful newcomer to the Republican circle and in the 2004 elections, a crowd-pleaser at Bush campaign appearances -- is suddenly out of favor. With Tuesday's risky referendum, which was transformed into a referendum on Schwarzenegger himself, Arnie staked all he had on one throw of one dice. And he lost the bet.
Schwarzenegger's approval ratings, which started out at 70 percent, have crashed to 35 percent -- now even lower than those of President Bush. In one survey, 56 percent of those questioned said they would not vote for his re-election in the next gubernatorial vote in 2006 against only 36 percent who said they would. In hypothetical contests, he loses out to even the most obscure opponents.
Schwarzenegger, grumbles his Hollywood buddy Warren Beatty, has turned from someone even Democrats could like, into a rightist who governs by "show, spin, cosmetics, photo ops, fake events, fake issues and backdrops." The recall of Schwarzenegger's predecessor Gray Davis, says Beatty, should now be followed by a new recall -- that of the Terminator himself. Indeed, Beatty himself has become the most talked-about potential opponent for the Democrats.
So what went wrong? The fallen wunderkind's talent has become his undoing. The talent to stage everything just like the movies, to paint himself as a political box-office smash, his landslide victory like a film and his appearances like a Terminator script. "Politics is Entertainment" was his motto, but now he is realizing that in the long-term, politics must do more than simply entertain.
The mood has changed
Schwarzenegger's early achievements are undisputed. He wrapped the unions around his little finger. He balanced the budget. He stood up for the farmers. He took liberal positions on some issues. He beguiled environmentalists. He brought four Democrats into his cabinet.
But a year later, the mood changed. And Schwarzenegger himself was to blame. People got over his bitter tirades against opponents ("girlie men" he called them) at Bush's New York party conference relatively easily. But when he then put forward an uncompromising "Year of Reform" agenda, in which he prescribed a series of brutal savings measures, all the while wanting more power for himself and threatening the opposition with ultimatums, that was the end of the fun.
All at once he went from being greeted at public appearances with cheers of "Ar-nold! Ar-nold!" to being booed off the stage. The worst instance was in June while on a visit to his Alma Mater, Santa Monica College. There, surrounded by graduation gowns and mortar boards, he was to give the traditional Graduation Day speech. Instead, his words were drowned out by choruses of disapproving shouts. Students chanted, "Stop lying to us!"
"The romance lasted only one news cycle," wrote the left-wing weekly paper The Nation. Even Schwarzenegger's own strategy team lost the plot. Their decision to set their boss against illegal immigrants went drastically wrong, losing him the Latino vote, the biggest electoral sector in the state.
Schwarzenegger's private business matters, too, were cause for concern. His dealings with publishing giant American Media (AMI), the company behind the National Enquirer tabloid and a host of body-building magazines, reeked of nepotism. Not only did he have a lucrative advisory role with the company, but there were also revelations that AMI had paid off potential critics of the Governor with hush-money. The company said it had just wanted to protect him.
Intoxicated by his own success, Schwarzenegger seemed to have lost his balance in the all-important tightrope walk between the two parties. "His whole operation failed to learn the lessons of the recall election," said democratic election strategist Bill Carrick. "Now that he's veered into inheriting the old worn-out Republican agenda, he's in deep trouble."
With the referendum, Schwarzenegger went for broke. He put his whole agenda to the vote and, to raise the stakes, threw in the question of whether he should stand for re-election, a full year before the next gubernatorial vote is due to take place. He called it "Part II" in the hopes of profiting from what he thought would be a success.
But right from the start, there were signs of a storm ahead. The majority of Californians disapproved of the governor's turning the referendum into a vote on his person. Most did not even know why the vote was taking place. Even Schwarzenegger's tour of all the late-night talk shows could do nothing to change that.
Above all, his commitment to cut union donations -- which would have meant financial death for California's Democrats -- was seen as an escalation. The unions forked out $100 million to stop this part of the reform program from succeeding. The pharmaceutical industry spent $80 million on the anti-Schwarzenegger campaign. In turn, the governor himself spent more than $50 million -- $7.2 million of it out of his own pocket. Altogether fundraising over the referendum broke through the $250 million mark. "Armageddon," was how political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe saw it. Fabian Nunez, the Democratic assembly speaker spoke of a "nuclear war".
And it was all for nothing. An overwhelming majority of Californians from all quarters shot the referendum down. "No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no" yelled the headline in the Los Angeles Times. Schwarzenegger's image, the myth of him as an indestructible "Terminator" has been damaged. The voters have given Hollywood's VIP politicians clear boundaries.
In the meantime, anti-Bush Schwarzenegger is displaying the first Bush-like symptoms. His events are becoming more choreographed and stage-managed -- his speech in front of the state Republican convention for example. There, it was back to the good old days, delegates springing to their feet with enthralled chants of "Ar-nold, Ar-nold!" Location? At the Marriott Hotel in Anaheim -- right next to that other fantasy world, Disneyland.
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