There is no doubt Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger realizes his political honeymoon is long over, that he has lost much of the popular support he enjoyed through his first 18 months in office.
But he’s shown no sign that he understands why.
On the warm June day when newspapers carried a Field Institute poll showing Schwarzenegger winning approval from a mere 31 percent of Californians, 37 percent among registered voters, the governor sounded plaintive. Field’s numbers confirmed findings a few weeks earlier by the Public Policy Institute of California.
“It is a very clear message by the California people,” Schwarzenegger said, noting state legislators rated even lower. “They are saying to all of us here at the Capitol: ’Work together.’”
Maybe. But voters are also saying they’re disgusted, just like they were with ex-Governor Gray Davis before ousting him in the 2003 recall election.
Maybe Schwarzenegger’s immense ego won’t let him see this. Maybe he’s been so isolated from the mass of Californians that he has no clue what they’re thinking.
So here’s a brief sumup of what voters can’t stand:
For more than two years, Schwarzenegger attended virtually no events that weren’t organized by his own staff, with the “public” participants carefully vetted Schwarzenegger supporters or school kids awed by the presence of the Terminator they’ve seen on TV and movie screens.
Maybe that’s why he took on the look of a deer caught in headlights when he was jeered during a graduation speech at Santa Monica College, his community college alma mater. Schwarzenegger’s staff couldn’t control who would be in the audience that day, so the governor for once got an unvarnished look at what many voters think of him.
Looking at him, it was clear he didn’t understand why he got such raspberries on a football field barely 10 blocks from the Schatzi on Main restaurant he used to run and the adjacent office building he often uses.
If he did understand, he would have cancelled the fund-raising event he attended the very next night with Silicon Valley high-rollers who paid $2,500 a pop to attend a cocktail reception with the governor or $50,000 each to join him in an “intimate dinner” at the home of Cisco Systems president John Chambers.
Schwarzenegger plainly doesn’t see that he’s now perceived as both a prevaricator and an inveterate fund-raiser, the same tags voters affixed to the despised Davis. Davis lost public favor because voters believed he sold public policy for campaign donations, especially from labor unions. Schwarzenegger is increasingly identified as an errand boy for big business.
The crowd in Santa Monica also called him a liar, not just because he promised on declaring for office that he would take no campaign donations, but also because they were convinced he reneged on a 2004 pledge to fund public schools this year to the full extent of Proposition 98 requirements. He made that commitment to get educators’ support for his 2004 budget plan, which short-changed the schools by about $1 billion.
Instead of a Ronald Reagan-style Great Communicator, then, this crowd saw the governor as a great prevaricator.
“Generally, our polling shows people think he’s not doing things differently from Davis,” says Bill Carrick, the Democratic consultant who manages campaigns for U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein. “He said he would fix the culture of Sacramento, the bickering and partisanship. Instead, it’s the same old stuff, money and partisanship at the center.”
Adds Carrick, “He’s a guy who can command all the free television time he wants, so people wonder why all the fund-raising? Voters now see him as a typical phony politician.”
Says longtime Republican consultant Arnold Steinberg, “His broken promises are part of it, but not all. You have to have an ethos, a direction, a vision and that’s been a problem for him. Now he runs the risk of becoming stale, especially with all his emphasis on advance work, staged events and gimmicks.”
Can Schwarzenegger turn this around? Yes, says Republican consultant Allan Hoffenblum. “He’s got to make the November special election look like a battle between him and powerful union bosses.”
But it’s also possible the public has formed a view of Schwarzenegger that almost nothing can change. This happened to Davis. Despite months of flailing about and $20 million worth of advertising during the recall campaign, support for Davis that election day was the same as polls showed it the day the recall began. Everything he did in between only reinforced what voters already believed.No one knows if Schwarzenegger is in that kind of difficulty yet. But for sure he will be if he doesn’t realize soon why he lost so much of his onetime support.