California says 'Hasta la vista, Arnie', and don’t come back

The mixed bag of candidates in this year’s midterm elections can learn a lesson from California's outgoing governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger: that being an outsider doesn’t always mean you can successfully reinvent yourself in politics.


Come January, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger will step down from office, and no, this time he will not be back.

Back in 2003, the Austrian-born Mr. Muscle was just one of 135 Californian candidates that included columnist Arianna Huffington, an adult film actress and child-star Gary Coleman. Candidates in this year’s midterm elections - also a mixed bag - would do well to learn the lesson from the "governator’s" time in office: being a popular public figure doesn’t necessarily mean you will make a popular politician.

After seven years in the job, Schwarzenegger’s pending exit is marked by dismal approval ratings, with polls reporting between just 26 and 31 percent. To add insult to injury, neither the Republican nor Democrat candidates want the governor’s endorsement, seeing it as more of a liability than a blessing.

While Schwarzenegger may lay claim to many prestigious titles, including Mr. Universe (from his body-building years) and honouree of the American Film Institute’s Hundred Years of Heroes and Villains (from his film career), it seems that “accomplished” California governor has eluded him.


Politics as entertainment

Despite this somewhat inglorious end to his time in office, few will forget Schwarzenegger’s theatrical transformation from action star to politician. The year was 2003, and California was set to vote on whether to recall (a procedure by which voters can remove an elected official from office through a direct vote) then-Governor Gray Davis, a Democrat, whose dubious financial dealings had left the state's voters disenchanted.

As the recall debate rolled out, a flurry of California residents announced their candidacy for governor. Following suit, Schwarzenegger stunned the country by announcing his own intentions to ditch his Hollywood lifestyle in exchange for a shot at public office.

In the end, Schwarzenegger, a Republican with White House backing from then-President George W. Bush, emerged as the only serious rival to Davis, and the recall vote turned into a run-off. Schwarzenegger won and became California’s 38th governor.

From action hero to middle man

Schwarzenegger inherited a state still reeling from the deflation of the dot-com bubble and an energy crisis that caused rolling blackouts across the state, forcing record-rate hikes that cut deep into consumer pockets. The governor also had to contend with a general fund deficit of some 6.1 billion dollars.

Schwarzenegger struggled to make any real inroads on this front, so with all the swagger and bravado of an action hero he tackled hard line issues like immigration. In 2005 the governor tried to push his agenda further by holding a state-wide special election in which he proposed eight measures to voters, including one demanding that parents of minors be notified of an abortion procedure 48 hours in advance. None of these bills were passed into law.

Schwarzenegger got the message, and with an eye on re-election, performed one of the most amazing stunts of his professional life: he took a step from right to centre.

“I have learned my lesson. And the people... sent a clear message -- cut the warfare, cool the rhetoric, find common ground and fix the problems together”, Schwarzenegger said in an apology to the people of California during a 2006 State of the State speech.

Immediately after, the governor began distancing himself from his erstwhile ally President Bush, encouraging bipartisanship by proposing investments in issues like state infrastructure, the environment and education, and taking up the cause of defending gay marriage.

Then and now

For all Schwarzenegger’s political pirouetting, he leaves office as one of the least popular California governors in decades. According to a 2003 Field Poll, only one other governor in 50 years has had a lower job approval rating than Schwarzenegger: his predecessor, Gray Davis.

Many analysts believe that some of Schwarzenegger’s political woes may stem from his being a socially liberal member of the conservative Republican Party. “Schwarzenegger is unpopular for several reasons”, said Dr. John Fortier, a research fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in the US. “He is faced with a bad economic and fiscal budget situation, and he is a man without a party, operating as a kind of independent between the two parties, but without strong support from either one”.

To highlight this point further, the governor will in fact be leaving the state with more debt than when he first came to office, with an overall budget problem of more than 20 billion dollars, consisting of a hefty deficit and gap between projected revenues and spending.

With midterm elections a week away, both Democratic candidate Jerry Brown and Republican candidate Meg Whitman are looking to get an edge in the polls, and both candidates seem to feel that they could benefit from terminating their ties with Schwarzenegger.

Brown has released an ad highlighting parts of Whitman’s stump that repeats verbatim excerpts of Schwarzenegger’s own speeches. Whitman, on the other hand, has done her best to ward off parallels between herself and the governor.

“I’ve been in business for 30 years...and am not an actor by any means.” Whitman said in raw video footage filmed by the Orange County Register, a news and information company based in California.

As Schwarzenegger once said in the film Judgement Day, “Hasta la vista”, Arnie.

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