Letter from Washington

August 29, 2005

Both sides of Schwarzenegger's slump: Oh, to have it both ways. To buy a house beyond your means and still afford that Carnival cruise. Pick the Ten Commandments you like best and chuck the rest. Eat Rice Krispie Treats at the rate my 4-year-old does and never have to exercise.

Ah, but if you're working in the political world, "having it both ways" almost goes with the territory.

In D.C. the other week, the head of California's Republican Party exercised this talent while discussing the tumbling popularity of Arnold Schwarzenegger. According to party chairman Duf Sundheim, the GOP governor, whose approval numbers have taken a bungee dive from a year ago, is a political-legend-in-the-making – think Abe Lincoln – who was bound to suffer some public backlash for the sake of his "reforms."

The Schwarzenegger reforms in question are heading toward a Nov. 8 special election. The ballot will include measures to have retired judges, instead of lawmakers, draw political boundaries, let the governor make midyear cuts to balance the budget, extend from two to five years the time it takes new teachers to become permanent employees and require workers' written consent to use union dues for political purposes.

Let's first be clear about one thing: The governor's woes, insists Sundheim, have nothing – nothing – to do with legislative gridlock in Sacramento. Or the expensive special election that most Californians don't want. Or complaints that he devotes as much time to fundraising as did recalled Gov. Gray Davis. Or claims that his financial dealings with muscle magazines conflicted with his governing duties. Or reports that an alleged former mistress got $20,000 in hush money. Or that Schwarzenegger suddenly looks less like the "get things done" conciliator who campaigned for office, and more like your average partisan politician.

No. There are really two reasons the governor's approval ratings have dropped from 65 percent last summer to 34 percent today, Sundheim said.

One has to do with those nasty, bad-mouthing Democrats.

"The Democratic Party still is very good at tearing people down and knows how to do it," said Sundheim, by extension referring to unions for nurses, teachers and others who have run TV ads attacking the governor's reform agenda. "They've had a very conscious campaign to focus on the governor instead of the initiatives."

The other has to do with the cross that must be borne by any potential political giant.

"Everybody that goes into office that really tries to make a difference, really tries to bring about change, goes through this period," Sundheim said. "Whether you want to go all the way back to Lincoln (or) . . . you look at Truman's numbers after the high at the end of World War II . . . there is this period that people go through that really have a reform agenda, and I think the governor's going through that now."

What history remembers of Lincoln and Truman is that they were presidents – not mere governors – whom America now associates, respectively, with the end of slavery in this country and with America's ultimate dominance on the international stage.

What if these presidents had failed at their efforts? What if slavery had persisted and Truman had succumbed to those who mocked his effort to turn the nation from its traditional isolation to permanent involvement in international affairs?

Sundheim becomes less enthusiastic about his political-legend analogy when the conversation turns to the prospect that the November ballot measures might go down in flames. In that case, he says – well it just wouldn't be fair to tie the governor's fortunes too closely to his reforms.

"I'm not saying there isn't a connection, but too many people, I think, are wrapping it all up and saying . . . his future depends upon the outcome in November," the chairman told reporters. "I just don't believe that's the case."

Having it both ways. In politics, it's a professional perk.

Dana Wilkie is a Washington-based correspondent for Copley News Service and a longtime observer of California politics and social issues.

»Next Story»