Hasta la Vista, Arnold: What Is Schwarzenegger's Legacy?

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Max Whittaker / Reuters

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger

Appropriately, the race to become the next governor of the richest state in the Union could well be a treatment for a Hollywood script: a multimillionaire taking on the wily scion of a political dynasty to succeed one of the biggest box-office stars of all time as governor of California. On Tuesday, Californians will decide if Democrat Jerry Brown, the current attorney general, a former governor himself and three-time presidential candidate, or Meg Whitman, the eBay billionaire who has spent a record $140+ million on her campaign, will succeed Arnold Schwarzenegger. Both contenders have spent a good part of their electioneering criticizing Schwarzenegger's failure to clean up the mess in Sacramento and put the state on sound financial footing. But is that what his legacy is going to be?

With the state's economy hammered by the recession, Arnold's approval ratings have dropped to the mid-20s, nearly as low as those of Gray Davis, the Democratic governor Schwarzenegger replaced in the 2003 recall election. But while Californians are unhappy with Schwarzenegger, few hate him, says Thad Kousser of the University of California, San Diego. "He is not divisive nor scandal plagued, but he's generally fallen short of changing the political culture of Sacramento and the policy course of the state." Indeed, on the grassroots level, Arnie still has his fans. Audrea Short, a Republican who owns a tire company in Ontario, east of Los Angeles, blames the "knuckleheads in the legislature," primarily the Democrats, for the legislative gridlock and budget failures of Schwarzenegger's seven years in office. "I have no complaints about Arnold. My complaint is with those he has had to work with."

Governors rise and fall on the strength of the economy. "When times are good, they look like geniuses," says political scientist Jack Pitney of Claremont McKenna College. "When times are hard, they look like dunces." Schwarzenegger was popular during his first two years when the economy soared and before his ballot box measures to reform the state were summarily rejected by voters. With the Great Recession still a hard reality for most Americans, the deepest budget cuts have come, not at the national level, but among the 50 states, with the Golden State a prime example. "The deep cuts we have experienced in education are a travesty for our state," says Long Beach Unified School District Superintendent Chris Steinhauser. Out of an $800 million budget, Long Beach Unified has cut $170 million over the past four years and anticipates cutting another $80 million this year. Nevertheless, Steinhauser says Governor Schwarzenegger helped install flexibility in the funding process that forestalled layoffs, until this year. "I've always appreciated that his door and that of his staff was always open."

Journalist and New America Foundation Fellow Joe Mathews believes the former Hollywood movie star has been a much better governor than his predecessor Davis. Mathews says that on things the governor could control, such as appointing qualified people to the administration and state boards and in passing legislation with a majority vote, such as AB32, the state's landmark global warming law, Schwarzenegger was very good.

But Schwarzenegger was an "illustrative failure" in regards to the two-thirds supermajority votes needed to pass a budget and taxes in California and in trying to work within the existing system to move the state ahead. Mathews says, "He did us a great service because he tried everything. He fought with people, he circumvented the legislature and went to the ballot measure, he compromised, he tried for spending caps, rainy day funds, raising taxes, cutting programs, working with the Republicans, working with the Democrats." Because Schwarzenegger was "flexible and nothing worked," Mathews says the governor opened people's minds to the need for systemic reform."

One indication that Californians are getting serious about reform is that Proposition 25, which would change the vote requirement in the legislature to pass a budget from two-thirds to a simple majority, is favored by 58% of voters polled — including a majority of Republicans — in a new USC/Los Angeles Times survey. Presently, California is the only state in the nation that requires a two-thirds vote to pass both a budget and to raise taxes, a situation that has led to countless impasses.

In the campaign, however, no one was thanking Schwarzenegger for showing Californians that Sacramento didn't work. Brown and Whitman each sought to link the other to Schwarzenegger's failures, insisting they will govern differently. (The governor, a moderate Republican, has not endorsed either candidate.) In the final weeks of the campaign, the Brown campaign released a television ad that showed Whitman parroting Schwarzenegger's reform rhetoric, often word for word. After seeing the ad, Schwarzenegger quipped, "Well, I think that my delivery of the lines was much better in the commercial than hers."

But whoever wins is unlikely to do much better than Arnold, says Mathews, co-author of California Crackup. "Every single fiscal proposal" that the two candidates have made during the 2010 campaign was tried by the sitting governor, says Mathews. "Brown or Whitman — they're both Arnold's third term."