Along the Tracks

Thursday, August 07, 2003


All right, enough somber soul-searching, angry investigating and expressions of deep empathy. Let’s have some fun with politics!

Total Recall

As every person who walks with 30 feet of a television, has a radio in the car or has a water cooler, coffee pot or copy machine at the office must know, Arnold Schwarzenegger, action film star extraordinaire, has jumped into the California governor’s race like an RPG-bearing commando. For a great analysis, it’s hard to beat Jim Lileks (Lileks also has a somewhat unexpected, but incredibly insightful consideration of the elevation of openly gay Rev. Gene Robinson to the Episcopal bishopric - scroll down).

The political elite are certain to gather like jungle botflies around Arnold’s candidacy, hoping to sap his momentum and bring him to his knees. Ain’t gonna happen!. Celebrity is superficial, it is true, and I don’t know if Arnold is really as self-effacing, humorous, open and generous as his image, wholly created by a publicity machine. But there are ways to peer behind the curtain and get a better reflection of the “real Arnold.”

Remember, before his acting career, Schwarzenegger was an internationally successful body builder. What does it take to reach the top in this pursuit? Dedication to a regimen. I’m talking dedication - 12-14 hours of training per day, carefully balanced meals and drinks, a tight schedule for all waking and sleeping hours. Such dedication requires a focus that is squarely aimed at a long-term goal, and sets marks of achievement based on meeting the demands of regimen as well as subjective subgoals (things like bodybuilding meet championships, beating specific competitors, high grades for specific musculature, etc.). To do what Arnold did requires a life-encompassing commitment. He made that commitment, stayed true to it, and achieved his ultimate goal.

Arnold then moved into the world of motion pictures. This change of goals could have resulted in failure quite easily - after all, Arnold was a “dumb musclehead,” had a harsh German accent and was largely unknown outside the world of competitive bodybuilding. Arnold again showed his attention to detail - his focus. First, he did a movie documenting his bodybuilding career - a clever introduction to a wider audience. Second, he limited his early roles to characters playing to his strengths - physical strength and commanding stature. The “fantasy” films were perfect, because there plots did not require much more than his presence (and in particular, did not require much dialog). His acting skills were allowed to grow inside this sheltered environment, and the plots were naturally conducive to the “strong, silent type.” Oh, and need I mention, expectations were quite low. High-brow critics and Academy judges weren’t going to be important audiences for these films. Nope, just guys (primarily) looking for a 2-hour escape from reality to a story where men were men, and one man in particular was a MAN. Arnold was gathering his following.

After the first “Terminator” movie - where Arnold got to be a villain, but only had to play a robot - the next natural career move was comedy, of course. And Arnold’s comedies have filled out the public “celebrity” image we see today. Just a big lumbering titan no longer, Arnold has demonstrated a willingness to poke fun at himself on-screen, bringing down the audiences natural defenses against a hulking giant. I’m not saying those comedies have been great, but they have been decent, even warm - especially “Twins.” This addition to the “Arnold character” has allowed him to add humorous elements to his action films as well - making those movies better. Today he stands as one of the top draws in motion pictures - and looking back, we see that it was, like his bodybuilding career, a carefully planned progression which required dedication to a regimen and unswerving focus on a very high goal.

True Lies

So now, Arnold has entered politics. Well, actually, Arnold has been entering politics for over a decade. His first “political appointment” was as the presidential ambassador for physical fitness, way back in the first Bush administration. He went to schools promoting phys-ed - playing on his strengths, once again. He began appearing at Republican events, especially fundraisers. He avoided potentially controversial subjects, sticking with what he knew - physical fitness and movie making - and keeping all other political pronouncements general and positive.

Last year, there was some speculation that Arnold would join the California governor’s race as a last-minute write-in candidate, but Arnold instead kept his focus on his next goal: The children’s after-school program ballot initiative he had helped fund and was serving as primary spokesperson. The issue passed, and Arnold collected important political capital.

This year, it’s the recall - something largely unexpected. The surprise for this observer was not that Arnold entered the race, but that he was considering at all. This is an important point: Arnold’s track record is of careful planning and “hitting the marks” on a predetermined schedule. The recall was an unexpected opportunity. What was Arnold’s game plan before the recall got rolling. A senate or congressional run? Or waiting until the governor’s seat opened in 2006, at the end of Gray Davis’ scheduled term? Probably the latter. Arnold has demonstrated an unshakable patience in his two prior careers. There is no reason to think he would change now.

The recall, however, was a wrench thrown in the mix. It seemed inevitable to observers that the Democratic firewall against a competing entry would crumble as the deadline closed - as it has. That meant, almost for certain, Gray Davis would be gone, and a new governor sworn in October 8th. That governor would most likely be seeking re-election in 2006 - no open seat for Arnold. Thus, if Schwarzenegger really had the governor’s chair as his political goal, it was either now or 2010 - too much of a wait even for him.

And so, Arnold is in, and while the attacks of Gray Davis are likely to be harsh, the Terminator is in perhaps the best campaign scenario he could ask for: 1) It will be a two-month sprint, not a year long marathon, which limits the effectiveness of Davis’ steady stream of “puke politics.” 2) Name recognition will be key, giving Schwarzenegger the biggest boom for his celebrity. 3) There is little time for fundraising, meaning self-financed campaigns are at a huge advantage - again, Schwarzenegger (versus “serious politicians”) has a strong edge (although fellow Republican Bill Simon and Democrat Arianna Huffington also possess big personal bank accounts. 4) Everyone knows what the “big issue” is - the state budget mess - so there is little need to play to “interest groups” on philosophical issues like abortion, the environment, bilingual education, affirmative action - things that typically drive California politics.

Indeed, it is unclear Schwarzenegger could win a GOP primary, considering the liberal social views (pro-choice, pro-gay rights) he has espoused. All anyone is going to really care about - and, I have a feeling, all Arnold is going to speak about - is how to fix the budget. I’m not talking details here, rather, Arnold’s vision for what California government will look like under his leadership. What little he has said or indicated through his actions in the past would seem to make him a bit of a deficit hawk, tying programs to specific tax initiatives and bond issues - limiting expenditures to income, in other words. That’s precisely what Gray Davis has failed to do. It also differs from Bill Simon’s anti-tax, heavy budget-cutting viewpoint. Arnold, I’m going to guess, will put together a proposal which maintains the safety net, cuts some of the unneeded and special-interest related budget items, and raises taxes and fees specifically related to budgeted state government activities. There will be some cutting, but I think Arnold has the personality it takes to sell it. Look for some of Davis’ favorite unions and programs to be primary targets. Education will not be touched, but lots of state contracts will be. The energy contracts (Davis’ penultimate failure) will be revisited, and I wouldn’t be too surprised to see Arnold make some kind of big proposal which might save a fair amount of cash presently promised to the electric companies. The budget Davis recently signed is just as much of a sham as last year’s pre-election catastrophe, only this time, the public is onto his shenanigans, and he will be unable to defend his signature.

Jingle All the Way

First the easy part - Davis loses the up-or-down ballot, with about 60 percent of Californians voting to oust him. The replacement vote will be less divided than seems likely now, as the Republicans make some sort of deal and coalesce around Arnold - I know, hard to buy, but I have a hunch people like Simon and Darrel Issa and Tom McClintock are more interested in seeing GOP control than their own personal ascension. Let’s also remember that polls will play a key part in the replacement race, and Arnold’s name recognition will give him such an advantage that the other Republicans will realize they have no chance - but the Dems will have a chance if the GOP vote is split.

The Democrats’ chance will rest with a single candidate - and not Gray Davis (even if he gets to be on the replacement ballot) and not Dianne Feinstein (even if she enters). Cruz Bustamante will be the Democratic unity candidate, although his relationship with Davis will force a tightrope walk worthy of Cirque de Sole. The “peel-off” factor primarily pulls votes away from the left, so limiting the effectiveness of the Arianna Huffington candidacy, not to mention further-out candidates like Greens and pacifists and anti-globalizationists, will be the key to a Bustamante campaign.

Here are the results as I see them: Schwarzenegger, 36 percent; Bustamante, 29 percent; Davis, 14 percent; Huffington, 8 percent; Greens and leftward, 6 percent; Simon and rightward, 6 percent; miscellaneous, 1 percent.

I admit, that’s not the “conventional wisdom,” which stipulates several candidates in the 10-20 percent range. I also admit that I’m some nobody, podunk Ohioan that shouldn’t have a clue about California politics. But I do read, and I do watch, and I find that state politics works pretty much the same everywhere. Call this the “Universal Ohio Theory:” Ohio is the archetype of state party politics.

Here in Ohio, the “splits” within the parties may seem deep and philosophical, but come election time, they are effectively superficial, and partisans coalesce around the party’s designate, even if that person does not really reflect the views preferred by the voters. Non-partisans, on the other hand, tend toward big ideas and big personalities. When traditional party candidates are weak, others fill in the gaps with grand schemes or plain-old name recognition. Who did the shrinking Democratic party of the mid-’90s put forward to replace retiring Senator Howard Metzenbaum? Joel Hyatt, the trial attorney made famous through his TV commercials. When George Voinovich finished his second term as governor, did the GOP nominate a candidate aligned with the growing state conservative movement? Heck no! They went with the Taft brand name. Despite Jerry Springer’s withdrawal from the Democratic senate chase, I still say the slot on the ballot was his for the taking - he just would have been pummeled in the general election.

California, I wager, will be no different here - although the format certainly raises some interesting potential scenarios. Nevertheless, in the end, Republican and Democratic voters overwhelmingly will pick their party consensus candidate - Schwarzenegger and Bustamante. Non-partisan voters will follow names (Schwarzenegger, Huffington) and big ideas (Simon, Green Party). With Arnold scoring two out of three, I have to give him the nod.

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