- The Washington Times - Friday, January 9, 2009


The Terminator is bored and weary of California. California is bored and weary of the Terminator. Real life, it turns out, is more difficult than the movies, though in California it’s often difficult to tell the difference.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is bigger than life in a place where everybody imagines he’s bigger than life, too. But he has stood out from the beginning of his career in politics, dominating the crowd of wannabe successors to the recalled Gray Davis. He’s a movie star with heft, size and brains to match a star’s ego. The race was quickly over. Californians could hardly wait for Act Two, and Republican hearts across the land went pitter-patter.

But the rigid, bloated Sacramento bureaucracy - bloated and rigid at the same time - that Mr. Schwarzenegger promised to ride into Sacramento to smash like a bug has beaten down the man who was once invincible. Against movie bad guys, anyway. The deceptively mild and meek of Sacramento with Coke-bottle eyeglasses, hand-held calculators and neat little briefcases turned out to be of tough stuff.

When the Terminator came to office seven years ago, he inherited a $38 billion budget deficit, the work of the dull-gray Democratic governor whose prescient mother named Gray. At the end of 2008, the budget deficit had grown to $40 billion. Democrats are still buzzing a year later about the rousing ovation for the same gray Gray at the presidential California primary debate, for one remarkable moment rendering both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton irrelevant to the heart.

No one imagines California wants to elect Gray Davis governor again, but it was sweet enough for the recalled governor and perhaps a flash of recognition that maybe California, which relishes the fact that it has a bigger economy than most of the nations of the world, is beyond effective governing. Everybody, even for California, wants too much.

He was elected as a Republican, but he’s more comfortable with Democrats, and he’s really a synthetic Kennedy, anyway. He’s trying to make a deal with Democrats to raise “revenues” - he won’t call them “taxes” - but on his terms. He thought he had worked out a complicated maneuver to boost state income taxes by $9 billion and enact further “fees” without help from the Republicans, who have been estranged from him almost from the beginning. But when Democrats balked at his demand to soften environmental and union rules in return, to kick-start the slumbering building-trades industry, the Terminator balked, too. It was no deal. Like Mr. Davis’ relations with Democrats, so the governor’s relations with Republicans have soured into open conflict, too.

“Does all this mean that Schwarzenegger really is just like Davis?” asks the LA Weekly, which watches the governor closely. “The answer from former staffers, observers and California politicians - even the journalists who once covered his exciting first couple of years going after ‘waste, fraud and abuse’ - is a definite maybe. The real drama of the Schwarzenegger administration has been the spectacle of a big man dubbed the Austrian Oak during his weightlifting years now being cut down to size - a charismatic, visionary figure brought to stasis by a culture of laughably unimpressive politicians. California has a history of big-tent Republican governors, including Hiram Johnson, Earl Warren and Ronald Reagan, who left large footprints. If anybody appeared likely to restore some GOP razzle-dazzle to Sacramento after the frigid terms of George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson, it was Arnold Schwarzenegger.”

But it’s hard for Gulliver to razzle when he’s surrounded by Lilliputians, and it’s hard to dazzle when the subject is budgeting. The governor has accomplished some things: a bond issue to pay for rebuilding roads and bridges, reform of a workman’s compensation boondoggle that was stifling small-business growth, and even a sweeping state law to deal with global warming. (This last might be a guide for Congress. If a legislature tells the sun to behave, and quit upsetting weather on Earth, what choice would Ol’ Sol have?)

But the Terminator’s fundamental dilemma is that there’s nowhere to go. His foreign birth bars the way to presidential politics, and a seat in the U.S. Senate is no consolation prize for a California governor. There’s always a return to Hollywood, and some of his friends say he might follow the example of Clint Eastwood, who returned to the movies after a stint as mayor of Carmel and won Oscars. He would be surrounded by Beautiful People, and have a manageable budget to manage. Making the story come out right should console.

• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.

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