01.01.11

Arnold, Out Like a Lion

California's governor leaves office January 3, but he isn’t going quietly. Joe Mathews on how the action hero is sucking up all Jerry Brown's oxygen—and why Brown doesn't mind.

Power transfers in a state capital generally follow a pattern. The incoming governor soaks up public attention and media coverage, with announcements of new appointments and new policies. The outgoing governor quietly packs up the office, keeps a low profile, and looks for a new job.

The current transition in California is exactly the opposite of that.

The departing Arnold Schwarzenegger is getting all the attention, with a steady stream of public events, policy and budget announcements. The arriving Jerry Brown, who will be inaugurated January 3, has stayed quiet and mostly out of view. Brown has announced only a handful of appointments. And his only two public events of note were long seminars on the budget during which he was careful not to commit to any particular course of action on said budget.

These strange dynamics do not indicate any conflict between the two men. To the contrary, relations between the two governors have been described as smooth and cordial, with Brown deciding to keep on Schwarzenegger's budget director as his own.

California's upside-down transition reflects the very different personalities and political needs of these two peculiar men. It also demonstrates how deep and intractable California's troubles are, and how little maneuvering room any governor—be he an Austrian movie star or a Zen retread from the '70s—has in dealing with them.

Schwarzenegger argues that the public simply hasn't caught up with his record because he accomplished so much late in his governorship.

Schwarzenegger says, in a point that even critics have conceded, that he has had little choice but to continue his full-force public salesmanship in his final months in office. While his name wasn't on the November ballot, several key parts of his record were. Opponents of some of his accomplishments—including climate change legislation, his citizens' commission to draw district lines and a 2009 corporate tax cut—sought to block those policies by ballot initiatives. Schwarzenegger successfully defeated all three measures. Since then, the governor also has been making the case for measures of his own—namely a water bond and a larger rainy day fund for the state—that aren't scheduled to go to voters for ratification until 2012, long after he leaves office.

But Schwarzenegger's busy public schedule hasn't all been about ongoing policy fights. He has picked up awards or cut ribbons at events that helped highlight parts of his record he wants historians to emphasize. Showcasing his climate change and solar energy accomplishments, he has encouraged speculation, so far unfounded, that he could take an energy post in the Obama administration.

Schwarzenegger also has used a series of media interviews to push back against harsh assessments of his legacy by state pundits. (George Skelton of The Los Angeles Times, who has generally been friendly to Schwarzenegger, wrote this week that the state never should have recalled former Gov. Gray Davis in the 2003 election that put Schwarzenegger in office). Most of these criticisms are based on the fact that Schwarzenegger, who pledged to clean up California's fiscal mess, leaves behind a big budget deficit, just as his predecessor left him one. The governor's team argues that much of the deficit is a product of the national recession.

While many governors with approval ratings in the 20s would shuffle quietly out the door, Schwarzenegger argues that the public simply hasn't caught up with his record because he accomplished so much late in his governorship, particularly pension changes and political reforms that were approved only this year. And because the governor was elected in a recall a little less than a year into his predecessor's first term, he only got seven years, not the full eight years in office.

"I always said that I will go and charge through the finish line, that I took the oath to serve as California's chief executive until January 3 and I will serve the people of California until the last second, until the next governor is sworn in," Schwarzenegger told reporters this month. "So there's a lot of work that still can be done, so why would I stop in December or November? It wouldn't make any sense." Schwarzenegger's race-to-the-finish line approach has occasionally seemed desperate. The governor called a special session for December to deal with a $6 billion deficit that had opened in the current year budget. While there was an obvious fiscal need for such a session, convincing a Democratic legislature to deal with a Republican governor on cuts just weeks before a new Democratic governor took office was too much to ask.

The legislature left town. At a press conference making his case for his package of cuts, Schwarzenegger was asked why he'd bothered with the legislature gone. "Maybe they'll come back," he answered, a bit plaintively.

All the attention Schwarzenegger has attracted might have annoyed another politician seeking to succeed a celebrity. But Brown hasn't complained at all. With Schwarzenegger sucking up media attention, Brown has been free to make plans with remarkably little scrutiny. And Brown, over the past year, expressed concern that voters might grow sick of him if they heard too much from him. That's a fear, it seems fair to say, that never much preoccupied Schwarzenegger.

There's been another advantage to Schwarzenegger's blitz: Brown, at least at this point, doesn't seem to have much specific to say about his intentions. He has indicated a willingness to keep on many Schwarzenegger officials. His handful of appointments mainly involves a return of officials from his first governorship, from 1975 to 1983. And Brown's pronouncements on the budget have been almost entirely directed at just how bad things are; "unprecedented" is how he has described the crisis. He hasn't specified solutions, though he and his advisers have hinted that they would push for a mix of spending cuts and tax increases. The tax increases would be part of a package that would go to voters for approval.

Strangely, this approach—to warn of terrible cuts and to take reforms or tax increases to the voters at the ballot—is remarkably similar to the strategy of his predecessor. Schwarzenegger often warned of budget "Armageddon" as a way to create more room to maneuver in budget talks. And he called two different special elections to pursue budget reforms, including a 2009 election that asked voters to extend tax increases. Both of those elections failed.

Brown, in repeating this approach, seems to have concluded that the governor failed not because of the strategy— but because of the loud, high profile way the governor did it. So Brown will offers voters a Schwarzenegger-style solution—but pitched at a much, much lower volume.

There's another virtue to this low-key approach. Brown has conceded that he's not quite sure how to fix California's broken budget and governance system. California may be so broken that it's not clear exactly how much a governor can do to solve things. With no good options, the smart politician will keep quiet and hide in the big shadow of a celebrity predecessor for as long as he can.

Joe Mathews is a journalist, an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation, and a contributing writer at the Los Angeles Times. He is the author of The People's Machine: Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Rise of Blockbuster Democracy and co-author of the new book, California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix it.