The jury is still out today on this fall’s key question in California politics: Is Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger a low-life flip-flop artist or a genius politician?
Generally, the answer to this question is determined by the ultimate jury, the voters on Election Day. They will decide Nov. 7 about Schwarzenegger, and right now it looks like they are buying whatever he’s selling.
There is little doubt about all the incumbent governor’s position changes. Here are just a few of the most recent:
In many of his early political speeches, he branded Indian casinos (along with labor unions) as among the most pernicious “special interests” in California. But this fall, he agreed one casino tribe should be allowed to install 3,000 new slot machines, and only state legislators prevented him from allowing several others to install many thousands more slot machines and build half a dozen new casinos.
He vetoed a bill providing expanded health care to uninsured California children, then campaigned this fall for almost universal care for those same kids.
In his early speeches, he vowed to rid Sacramento of special interests. “Special interests have a stranglehold on Sacramento,” he said in 2003. “Here’s how it works: Money comes in. Favors go out. The people lose.” Since uttering those words, he has taken more than $200 million from private interests with high stakes in state policy decisions.
For years, he strongly backed Proposition 187, the 1994 ballot initiative that aimed to eliminate all public services for illegal immigrants. This fall, he says that stance was a mistake.
There are many more examples. These are accompanied by other astute moves: Conservative Republicans got upset because he appointed a lot of Democrats as state judges; Arnold placated them by appointing right-wing icon James Rogan – onetime manager of President Clinton’s impeachment – to an Orange County judgeship. Labor unions have been his most formidable foes, but he appointed a teachers union official to the state Board of Education and joins most of organized labor in fighting Proposition 89 and its planned public financing of election campaigns.
Each one of these moves, whether in the flip-flop category or not, took the wind out of somebody’s sail. Once, casino Indian tribes were among the leading contributors to Democratic campaigns, primarily because conservative “family values” Republicans opposed gambling. Now, since they are getting what they want from Schwarzenegger, this once-reviled special interest is pretty much leaving the governor’s race alone.
Schwarzenegger would like to cut into the Democrats’ normally huge margin among Latino voters – the state’s fastest growing electoral bloc. He knows the highly symbolic Proposition 187 was one reason for Latino voting patterns, so he’s now siding against it and hoping no one remembers what he said before.
“I don’t think I’ve changed any of my positions,” he innocently told one interviewer.
Health care for kids is another symbolic issue, resonating especially with women voters. Schwarzenegger wants to cut into the usual Democratic distaff edge, so now he’s for universal care for children, even if it’s far from clear how he’ll bring that about.
He’s further muted his union opposition by backing the five big construction and repair bond issues on the ballot, even though his original plan was essentially hijacked by Democrats in the Legislature and peppered with provisions that a) ensure union labor will get beaucoup jobs from them, and b) so obfuscate where the money will go that no one can be sure significant repairs will even be made to threatened levees if the bonds pass.
It’s almost as if Schwarzenegger made a list of the political enemies he’d made during his first two years in office and deliberately set out to placate them all in the year before the election.
The polls indicate it’s working better than the governor and his handlers could have dreamed. If those numbers hold up through the election, Schwarzenegger will go down in California’s political annals as one of the most brilliant operators ever. If there’s a sudden turnaround, though, and he loses, he would instead be remembered as little more than an unprincipled flash-in-the-pan. It’s all up to the voters.