Die Arnolddammerung?.Karl Rove wasn?t the only one to get a reprieve from media scrutiny thanks to the Supreme Court nomination frenzy. Arnold Schwarzenegger can thank President Bush for knocking his latest outbreak of cluelessness out of the national newspapers, too.
I?m talking about the discovery that Schwarzenegger was the beneficiary (more or less) of an $8-million contract tied to two muscle magazines? sales of ad pages to dietary supplement makers, an industry that happened to be the target of regulatory legislation he happened to have vetoed last year. He didn?t see anything wrong with the arrangement, and still doesn?t, although he?s canceled it (but he’s keeping the money he already earned). His popularity ratings in California, already rock-bottom, won?t be helped by the affair.
For Californians, none of this was surprising. For the non-California press, which has spent the last two years singing his praises, talking him up as a Presidential contender, and making pilgrimages west to conduct inane interviews, smoke cigars, and motorcycle up the Pacific Coast Highway with him, his plummeting reputation must come as a shock.
What the national press has never understood (or reported) is what an underachieving governor Schwarzenegger has been almost from the start. They painted him as a political natural and took him at his word that he loved the job of governor. But in terms of traditional politics and traditional governance?the hard work that requires having a political vision and a taste and talent for compromise–there?s no evidence he enjoys the work and he?s certainly not good at it. There?s a reason he loves governing through ballot initiatives?in California, initiative elections are conducted by remote control, through multi-million-dollar TV campaigns, not by canvassing voters or horse-trading with legislators.
Let the national media enjoy speculating about whether he will or won?t run for re-election next year. It?s plain that he won?t. For one thing, all the issues that he?s put off for the last two years will land with a thud on the next governor. These include balancing the budget, which will certainly require raising taxes on the higher brackets (the same taxpayers who received a lavish cut from President Bush) to balance the fee increases and program cutbacks that have hit the middle class and poor. Then there’s energy and water policy, which Schwarzenegger has shown no interest in or grasp of whatsoever. My prediction: Watch for him to set up some national foundation or other political action entity, name himself chairman, and declare that his work in California is done.
The Schwarzenegger Syndrome is related to the larger phenomenon of celebrity politics. You know how it works: somebody lands on the political stage thanks to his achievement in another prominent walk of life, such as warfare or entertainment. His popularity ratings are through the roof, and he?s talked up as a national leader. Think Colin Powell?he was being pressed to run for President while people were still wondering whether he was a Republican or Democrat.
These luminaries are lionized (for a time) precisely because they?re ciphers, upon whom every voter is free to project his or her desires and expectations. Reality sets in slowly?we discover that the hero is maladroit on the stump, or thin-skinned, or just stupid, and before you know it the hastily anointed national star is an also-ran. Or, worse, the paragon is actually elected and turns out to be just a bozo. (Insert Jesse Ventura?s name here.)
Schwarzenegger was slightly different because his Hollywood experience allowed him to project the illusion of ability and leadership for the whole length of a campaign. But the campaign he won was a truncated one, so the bloom didn’t have a chance to wear off before election day. And the electorate was desperate for any change. But virtually all the policy initiatives he?s proposed have gone down in flames, because they were all ill-planned and ineptly managed. He?s picked pointless fights with popular targets (nurses and teachers) and proposed vacuous solutions to genuine problems. He wasn?t a better governor than Gray Davis, the man he replaced; he just played one better on TV. And now he doesn?t even do that.
The talk of a constitutional amendment to allow him to run for President hasn?t been heard for a while now. The fact that it was ever heard in the first place is a cosmic joke.