Honeymoon. Even though he wasn’t new to office, that is nevertheless the only word to describe the first four months after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s reelection last fall. It was a spell of amity similar to what Schwarzenegger enjoyed after his initial election in the recall of 2003.
But it’s over. All that talk of “post-partisanship” and his spirit of “can’t we all just get along” is about to fly out the window, if it isn’t already gone.
And the reason is not just the governor’s propensity to shoot off his mouth in derogatory ways, although that’s a big contributing factor. It was clear the brief era of (faux) amity was over the moment tapes emerged early this month containing Schwarzenegger’s thick accent calling the state Senate’s Democratic president, Don Perata of Oakland, “a sick man” and the state Assembly’s Democratic speaker, Fabian Nunez of East Los Angeles, a “political operator…who evinces no real passion” about issues.
It doesn’t matter who released those tapes; the content is what counts, words Schwarzenegger must have known were being recorded while he said them. It doesn’t even matter if Schwarzenegger by some chance has sized up these men accurately.
Perata and Nunez were close Schwarzenegger allies last fall as all worked to get voters behind $38 billion in construction and repair bonds. The relatively diminutive Nunez appeared so often with the governor and tended to stand so close beside and behind him that some called him a “lapdog” and others wisecracked that he was Schwarzenegger’s “watch charm.”
While Perata and Nunez continue to maintain they can work with the governor, his candid comments can’t help but move matters back toward the era of the 2005 special election campaign, when Schwarzenegger called Democrats “losers” and “girlie men” and vowed to “kick their kiesters.” Why would people like Perata and Nunez trust a man who talks so differently behind their backs than to their faces?
But even before taped revelations of the governor’s true views, there was plenty of other evidence the honeymoon was about to end.
One indication came when the state’s highly respected non-partisan legislative analyst, Elizabeth Hill, reported that Schwarzenegger was “not realistic” in expected revenue estimates from expanded Indian casinos he used to balance the state budget. In short, she was saying in more civil language that Schwarzenegger’s claim of putting forward a balanced budget plan was bogus from the start.
Even if Schwarzenegger’s revenue estimates were correct, they relied on a presumption that the Legislature, which last year nixed compacts putting thousands more slot machines into tribal casinos, would reverse itself and suddenly allow gaming to double. There is no assurance of that.
At the same time, the ever-frank Republican state Sen. Tom McClintock, last year’s GOP candidate for lieutenant governor, allowed that “the new budget purports fiscal restraint…but based on some shaky assumptions.” He noted in an essay that if this budget passes, state general fund spending would have increased 7.9 percent per year under Schwarzenegger – almost a full percentage point more than it did under the governor’s predecessor Gray Davis, who was often reviled by Republicans for irresponsible spending increases.
Then there is Schwarzenegger’s plan to move 6,000 prison inmates to private jails in other parts of America, in most cases thousands of miles from their families. After predicting at least 5,000 convicts would volunteer for transfer, Schwarzenegger found only a few hundred who actually stepped up. So he ordered involuntary transfers.
Immediately, prison guard union leaders warned the involuntary exiles would incite widespread violence from prisoners. If that should happen, there’s little doubt whom the guards and others would blame.
Then there was the Republican response both to Schwarzenegger’s budget and his vaunted plan for health care expansion and reform. To say his own party’s lawmakers were unenthusiastic puts it mildly. The GOP’s legislative leadership insists it will not go along with a new tax on doctors and hospitals to fund more health care for the working poor, even if Schwarzenegger calls it a mere fee.
Republicans put forward their own alternative plan, which would divert hundreds of millions of existing tobacco tax dollars from preschool programs and anti-smoking efforts to health care. That will get little or no support from either Schwarzenegger or the Democratic legislative majority.
Add it all up, and even before the tapes emerged, Schwarzenegger was headed for trouble. He needs help from the very people it is now clear he has vilified in private.
So no matter what positive spin the governor’s aides try to put on the new scene in state government, it’s plain the second honeymoon is over and Schwarzenegger will have to struggle to win passage for his big plans. He could still accomplish a lot, but things will no longer be nearly as easy as they’ve been for the last few months, no matter how “fantastic” he may call the new scene.