Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger delivers his November 2006
victory speech at the Beverly Hilton in this NWN video.
As November slides to December and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s very expansive agendas on water and, especially, health care reform, remain yet unrealized, some eyes turn to incrementalism. Which brings up the man Schwarzenegger replaced in the dramatic 2003 California recall, former Governor Gray Davis.
Davis, and he says so himself, prided himself on “incrementalism.” Yet he is a fan of Schwarzenegger, and the two today are friends. “He thinks,” says the Democrat elected twice as governor, once as lieutenant governor, and twice as state controller after serving four years in the Assembly and nearly seven years as then Governor Jerry Brown’s chief of staff, “really big.” In contrast, says the native New Yorker who nonetheless dreamed of being governor of California, “I thought in smaller steps. I didn’t want to scare people.”
Schwarzenegger doesn’t mind “scaring people.” He thinks of it as inspiring them. But he’s pushed all year long for a universal health care plan based on a market system, which would require every Californian to buy health insurance which is not price regulated. Implicit contradictions have, not surprisingly, led to a somewhat Rube Goldberg-like construct which has remained tantalizingly close to fruition yet out of reach for months now. Notwithstanding Schwarzenegger’s many pronouncements to the contrary.
Schwarzenegger was advised by, as the saying goes, some people months ago to push hard for a huge result then settle for something historic yet manageable. Like health care for all children in California, and an end to denial of health care coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. The latter is something that Assembly Republican Leader Mike Villines has said repeatedly that he could get behind.
Schwarzenegger has chosen not to do that, and the Christmas shopping season is now upon us.
Former Governor Gray Davis wryly discusses Schwarzenegger, the recall, California’s chronic economic and budget woes, and Jerry Brown in this NWN video.
None of which is to say that the former action superstar has not had major successes. On infrastructure, workers compensation reform, renewable energy, climate change, crisis management, and so on.
One area where he has had less success — and this is something very familiar to Davis, since it was one of a few things which cost him his governorship — is the state’s budget.
Both Schwarzenegger and Davis were confronted by two fairly intractable elements when they assumed their governorships. An ultra-government faction in state politics, and an anti-government faction.
Davis saw this very clearly when he won his landslide election as governor in 1998. He told me not long after that he recognized the pent-up demand among Democratic constituency groups, notably public employee unions, for massive new government spending programs that had built up in the 16 years following the last Democratic administration under Jerry Brown. And that he would choose largely to resist these demands. Because he could not be sure that the burgeoning dot-com boom of that time would continue.
Indeed, Davis, who was flown about the state on Gulfstream jets chartered by organized labor during his devastation of right-wing Republican Dan Lungren, was immediately confronted with a lengthy labor wish list after he became governor. Which he mostly blew off. Then. But he later acceded to a number of programs, both spending sought by the ultra-government faction and tax cuts sought by the anti-government faction.
Later, when Davis had become vulnerable following the electric power crisis of 2000 and 2001, he was confronted by still more demands even as the state sunk into a deepening fiscal crisis. The Latino Legislative Caucus declared that it would produce an alternative budget.
I asked him what he thought of the notion. He replied that he thought little of it, since it would never happen. And indeed it did not. Just as the unhappy far right of today takes fiscal pot shots but offers no solutions, the unhappy far left of that time failed to put up as promised.
What turned out to be Davis’s final budget, in 2003, called for a balance of major cuts and tax increases. But what transpired was what he mostly expected, what then Senate leader John Burton called a “get out of town budget.”
The Democrats balked at cuts. The Republicans balked at taxes. And what had become a truly massive crisis rolled on.
Enter Arnold Schwarzenegger. The action superstar, fresh off the launch of the global megahit Terminator 3, took care not to take an anti-tax pledge, though he provided many anti-tax atmospherics. He told me that he did not like taxes but did not want to fence himself in.
And indeed he did not. As he discussed his first budget, Schwarzenegger left open the possibility of a temporary tax increase. Which led to no little consternation amongst the anti-government faction that was loudest in Republican ranks, including some among what turned out ultimately to be a notably failed crew of staffers and advisors.
When Schwarzenegger came in, he had an historic opportunity to confront the two dysfunctional extremes of California politics. The ultra-government faction, which sees a governmental solution even to problems which do not actually exist. (Think smoking on the beach.) And the anti-government faction, which in the words of the godfather to the current faction narrowly running the state Republican Party, Grover Norquist, wants to drown government in a bathtub.
The dynamics of the recall impelled Schwarzenegger to cut the unpopular car tax and then seek a way to make constitutional the massive deficit borrowing already approved by Davis and a bipartisan majority of the Legislature. He did both.
But having done those politically necessary things, he could then have moved forward with a temporary tax increase — to make up for the car tax cut, without which there would be little structural deficit problem today — and the California Perfomance Review (CPR), which sought long-term efficiencies throughout government.
Instead, he ultimately decided against both. And I will write about this at greater length in the future.
When I wrote in 2004 that the California Performance Review was behind schedule, Schwarzenegger protested. He told me: “I am going to blow up the boxes (of government, as he’d promised in his State of the State address). And you may be in one of those boxes!”
But he did in fact back away, with the CPR program a victim of an internal fight. All of it between Republicans, as it happens. And the great conservative Republicans, such as Tom McClintock and the like, had little if anything to say about it.
All of which makes Davis, who has a highly informed and rather sardonic view of California government, rather amused.
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