- The Washington Times - Monday, February 4, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO — As an actor, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger scored frequently with blockbusters like “The Terminator” movies, but he also was responsible for “The Last Action Hero,” one of the biggest box-office flops in Hollywood history.

His approach as governor is comparable: He would rather take risks and fail spectacularly than play it safe, which might explain his past year.

His state is facing a $14.5 billion deficit, the largest since he rode into office more than four years ago. His landmark universal health care plan, the centerpiece of his 2008 legislative package, died in the state Senate last week.

He has thrown his prestige behind a few initiatives on term limits and an American Indian gambling industry that surveys show teetering on the brink as voters head to the polls tomorrow.

“He’s not had a good few weeks now,” said Kevin Spillane, who is leading the opposition to the term-limits measure, Proposition 93.

Mr. Schwarzenegger has battled back in his usual upbeat style. The day after the health care bill failed, he gathered the proposal’s supporters — including unions, consumer groups and Democratic Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez — and announced, in effect, “I’ll be back.”

“Basically, as I have said, this is a bump in the road. This is not over for health care reform,” Mr. Schwarzenegger said. “I think I have to compare this with other things we have tackled since I have come into office, big issues. Whenever you deal with big issues like this, they’re not easy to really accomplish.”

Indeed, for every hit in the state, such as his landmark global-warming initiative in 2006, the governor can count several misses, most glaringly the 2005 special election in which his slate of conservative ballot measures were picked off by a hail of union opposition.

“The hype sometimes doesn’t match the results. But he gets credit for at least taking on the big issues that a lot of politicians don’t want to touch,” said San Jose State University professor Larry Gerston, co-author of “Recalled,” about the 2003 recall election that swept Mr. Schwarzenegger into office.

Part of the problem is that the Republican governor has no natural allies in the Legislature. The Republican lawmakers in both houses are uniformly more conservative, socially and fiscally, than Mr. Schwarzenegger, forcing him to cross party lines regularly for his more-ambitious agenda items.

On health care, for example, not a single Republican supported his plan. Instead, Mr. Schwarzenegger spent a year crafting a compromise with the Democrats, who control both houses, only to see the measure fail when Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata abruptly pulled his support.

The split makes accomplishments more difficult, but it hasn’t hurt his popularity with the voters. The governor remains the best-liked politician in California, in part because he is viewed as a maverick who is not beholden to party lines, say analysts.

Where Mr. Schwarzenegger has kept faith with Republican voters is in his adamant refusal to raise taxes. His proposed budget, introduced last month, deals with the deficit by calling for unpopular budget cuts, such as reducing per-pupil school spending, closing some state parks and granting early release to some prisoners.

But the budget also calls for raising some fees and surcharges, which fiscal watchdogs describe as tax increases in disguise.

His most visible Republican critic, state Sen. Tom McClintock, faults Mr. Schwarzenegger for allowing state general-fund spending to rise by an estimated 44 percent since he took office.

“A year ago, I warned him myself about the coming budget crisis. He looked at me and said, ‘That is bad news. I don’t want to hear bad news. The people don’t want to hear bad news. We need to be optimistic,’ ” Mr. McClintock said.

“Those warnings were not only dismissed, they were ridiculed,” he said.

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