Feature

Schwarzenegger: A successful failure?

The former governor leaves California with a $28 billion deficit, caused in large measure by his inability to break the state's political gridlock.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Hollywood action hero who swaggered into California’s governorship in 2003 vowing to “tear up the credit cards” and “end the crazy deficit spending,” limped out of office this week as a failure, said George Skelton in the Los Angeles Times. The $28 billion deficit the Republican leaves behind is a grim monument to his “delusional” view of how politics works. Schwarzenegger thought he could succeed in politics through the sheer willpower and muscle he brought to bodybuilding and acting; but to his dismay, he discovered he couldn’t force his will on legislators or the public. We “clear-eyed conservatives” always knew this so-called centrist was a phony, said Ben Boychuk in The Sacramento Bee. Schwarzenegger will go down in history as “a Republican-in-name-only whose pandering, ‘progressive’ rhetoric” culminated in a 23 percent approval rating and “a legacy of disappointment.”

The man has obvious faults, but they “don’t account for the comprehensive nature of his failures,” said Joe Mathews in the Los Angeles Times. The reason nothing worked for the Governator is that “the system itself doesn’t work.” To rein in spending and balance the budget, Schwarzenegger tried every possible tactic, from deriding legislative opponents as “girlie men” to wooing them over stogies in his famous smoking tent. But nothing could overcome the contradiction at the heart of the state’s politics—the refusal by powerful employee unions to allow budget cuts and the voters’ habit of passing ballot initiatives limiting taxes. Combine that with the legislature’s bizarre requirement that no money issue can be passed without a two-thirds supermajority, and you have gridlock. Schwarzenegger’s “heroic” failures to break this impasse, ironically, may stand as his greatest legacy, “especially if Californians heed the lessons they provide.”

For many reasons, Schwarzenegger “stands a good chance of being judged more happily by history than by his contemporaries,” said Lou Cannon in PoliticsDaily.com. Schwarzenegger’s initiative to reduce California’s greenhouse-gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 has made the state “an internationally recognized laboratory of alternative-energy experimentation.” Before the recession hit, he successfully campaigned for $40 billion in bonds to renew California’s roads, bridges, and levees. He’s even tackled California’s baked-in tendency toward dysfunctional partisan politics with a ballot initiative that gives the task of drawing legislative districts to an independent commission. If that produces more centrist politicians, Schwarzenegger will be remembered not as a big-mouthed budget-buster but as “an apostle of political reform.”

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