By almost any measure, conditions in California today are far worse than in 2002, when this column first suggested recalling then-Gov. Gray Davis. Yet, there is no serious consideration today for a recall of Davis’ replacement, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The reasons have to do with things like public perceptions and the governor’s own optimism.
Under Davis, the projected state budget deficit was about $12 billion. Today, it’s $16 billion and counting, and schools, parks, and other state services have already been cut back.
Back then, the state was just emerging from an electricity crunch, with Davis seen by many as a patsy for the generating companies that created it with their market manipulations. But almost no new power plants have been added to the California grid since then, and Schwarzenegger has not pushed as hard as Davis for such developments.
Back in 2002, the state was beset with a miserable campaign finance system that made Davis and other politicians beholden to big-money special interests that financed their election drives. But Schwarzenegger is an exponentially bigger fundraiser than Davis, who was the biggest ever – until Arnold came along. Just like Davis, Schwarzenegger rarely makes a public policy decision counter to the interests of his donors.
But there was no home foreclosure crisis in 2002. Homeowners felt they could look forward to almost infinite real estate appreciation, with the prospect of more and more credit lines to use for boats, classic cars, flat-screen televisions, and other toys.
Now there are record-level foreclosures, with real estate appreciation no more than a memory.
Yet, almost no one blames Schwarzenegger for any of this, while back in 2002, Davis was a scapegoat for nearly everything that could go wrong.
Asked why the difference, Schwarzenegger said, “We are different. We are doing things to help. The important thing is to pump money into the economy and not taking money away from the people like Davis did when he increased the vehicle tax. We will pump billions into construction from the $29 billion that’s left of the infrastructure bonds we passed last year.”
There’s also optimism. Where Davis often bemoaned the state’s situation, Schwarzenegger travels the state saying “We are going to be okay, we just need to work through this. We are more diversified than other states, so we will do fine. It’s just a small, temporary downturn.”
When Davis was reelected, just two weeks before his recall was proposed here, fully 1.5 million fewer voters turned out than in the election of 1998, when he was elected four years earlier.
People voted with their feet against both Davis and his reelection rival William Simon, among other politicians.
With economic conditions and the state’s finances worse off than six years ago, things are not all that different now in terms of voter turnout.
The only time in the last 10 years that vote totals approached the 1998 level of about eight million votes cast came in the recall election of 2003, when 7.9 million voters participated. Even last month, with hotly contested presidential races in both major parties, only 6.3 million ballots were cast.
When Schwarzenegger ran for reelection in 2006, total votes amounted to only about 117,000 more than in low-turnout 2002. And the state’s population was up more than one million in the meantime.
Schwarzenegger plainly has not spurred any lasting resurgence of voter interest. Yet, there’s no push to recall him.
The main reasons are public perceptions created by his own optimism. No matter how poorly things have gone in California during his tenure, no major opinion poll has ever shown Schwarzenegger’s favorable ratings below 50 percent. The only other political figure with similarly high ratings today is Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who has admirers on both sides of the political aisle.
Schwarzenegger achieves his continuing popularity by speaking out on almost everything, but rarely taking an unpopular stance. When it became obvious last fall that the foreclosure tide would soon reach crisis levels, he announced an “agreement” with mortgage lenders to delay bump-ups in adjustable interest rates. Of course, many banks were already doing this, in part because each time they foreclose on a home, they lose an average of at least $55,000.
When fires ravaged parts of Southern California, there was the governor near the front lines giving pep talks to firefighters and burned-out homeowners. But no action ensued that didn’t occur in previous similar disaster situations.
The upshot is that being from Hollywood helps a great deal. Schwarzenegger knows all about image-making and that helps him avoid blame as matters decline in this state.
No wonder he still says, “I love my job. I love being governor.”
That feeling itself makes it pretty certain he will get to serve out the 30 months left in his term.