What’s happened to Arnold?


From the Publisher / Arnold G. York

Inquiring minds want to know: What’s happened to Arnold? A month or two ago he was riding the crest of the wave. Flower petals and hosannas wherever he went. His re-election in 2006 was prophesied as a gimmie. They were talking about President. They were talking about Emperor. They wanted to change the Constitution just for Arnold and then-“powie!”-suddenly he’s in trouble. Polls show him dropping like a stone. A very heavy stone. What happened to the golden boy and why?

Arnold, Mr. Moderate Republican, is now out there talking tougher than tough about immigration. He’s making Bush’s immigration policy sound absolutely middle-of-the-road. He’s giving us visions of streams of illegals flowing over the Mexican border. There’s Arnold, sounding like the most conservative of the conservatives shouting, “Close the borders!” unshackle the vigilantes and many similar sound bites to the same effect. He sounds remarkably like old Gov. Pete Wilson and Prop 187, which probably shouldn’t be surprising since many of his advisors are the old Wilson people. It worked before. It put the then trailing-badly-in-the-polls Wilson back into the governor’s chair and probably cost the Republican Party the Hispanic vote for the next decade. Will it work again? It just might.

What happened is that Gov. Arnold wanted a package of structural changes in the way the California government operates. He wanted to change the government state employee pension systems for a cheaper, less comprehensive pension system.

He wanted to redistrict and stop the Legislature from redrawing their own district lines, which ends up with everyone in a safe district. He wanted a budgetary spending cap, which meant rewriting Proposition 98, which guaranteed 40 percent of state monies to education. He wanted to change teacher tenure and, instead, make it a merit system. He wanted to change the nurse staffing rules.

Well, you can guess at the outcome. What our governor sees as reform many people with those jobs see it in the same light as the South looked at Sherman’s march to the sea. If not genocide, at least multiple homicides. So they went on the attack, raised a whole bunch of money and began some very well thought out TV commercials attacking the governor. It was the widows of fallen police officers and firefighters talking about their families and children, and the losses of their husbands. It was teachers-real teachers, not actors-talking about the impact in the classroom. It was nurses in white uniforms showing up at every Gov. Arnold political event, and then being muscled by Gov. Arnold’s panicky security people, and telling it all to the TV cameras. And then the popularity numbers began to plummet, more than 20 points in a very short period. Clearly, Arnold was beginning to lose the Democrats and the Undecided, so, I suspect, he decided to move back toward his Republican base, which is primarily conservative.

That’s the rub in politics. If you want to get something done, it’s invariably going to cost you some popularity. In Gov. Arnolds’ case, the drop was greater and faster than any of us would have believed, but I’m sure he’ll get some of it back. He’s only now beginning his counteroffensive, which means he’s going to be spending a lot of money to try and recapture some of that ground. Look for some commercials about state employees retiring with inflated pensions, or some other horror stories about abuses of the system. It’s possible that, after this round, both the Democrats and Republicans will be more realistic and agree on some reforms. If not, there are going to be a bunch of initiatives on the November ballot trying to change just about everything about California government.

There are definitely going to be some losers in this battle and I suspect that immigration is going to be one of them. Periodically, every 10 years or so, we seem to have these anti-immigration swings. They’re always nasty and a bit racist and have been going on since this country began. I’m sorry to see someone like the governor taking the low road. It doesn’t become him personally and, frankly, I think it will ultimately cost him politically. But don’t count out Gov. Arnold quite yet. He’s a tough infighter and he’s perfectly capable of switching positions. He has before and probably will do so again, and those numbers will probably begin to swing back.