When Arnold Schwarzenegger first ran for governor in 2003, he talked as if being a good governor -- which for him meant balancing the state budget without raising taxes -- would be easy. Now he knows it is not easy. He just makes it look easy.
In his inauguration speech, Schwarzenegger boasted that he would be an action governor: "I don't want to move boxes around. I want to blow them up."
That stunt fizzled. As frequently happens in the early part of a movie, the action hero suffers painful setbacks. When Schwarzenegger tried to cut the growth in state spending, state employee unions spent millions knocking him down -- and it worked. Voters gave Schwarzenegger low approval ratings in opinion polls. They rejected the reform measures he placed on the November 2005 special-election ballot. It was time for a comeback.
Now Schwarzenegger has a new slogan. As he told The San Francisco Chronicle editorial board last month, "Political courage is not political suicide."
How will he balance the budget? I asked Schwarzenegger during an interview on Friday. When Schwarzenegger assumed office, he noted, the budget shortfall was $16.5 billion. Now, it's less than $5 billion. Gradual change has worked for him. He sees himself working with the Democratic Legislature to make sure that the shortfall is "less" next year, and "the next year, let's wipe it out."
As for the long-term problem of what the state should do during the next economic downturn, he wants Sacramento to "find a way of deciding ahead of time which programs will be cut, if in the future, we have an economic decline."
What about blowing up the boxes? "It was a great idea," Schwarzenegger answered, "but I think that the resistance from both parties was just too enormous."
Schwarzenegger said he is all for streamlining government and pushing for efficiencies, but when you talk about cutting actual programs, both parties object and you find out what it's like to "have everyone scream at you."
As he put it, "Why would I fight a fight that no one really likes?" Take his administration's suggestion to eliminate the state Board of Barbering and Cosmetology. "All of a sudden, you have 5,000 hairdressers on your back saying, 'Wait a minute, this is my only link to government.'" Schwarzenegger added, "My own hairdresser" complained.
"My own hairdresser" is not the language you'd expect from a governor of, say, Massachusetts. Then again, how many governors are stars who make the job of governing look fun?
Meanwhile, in San Francisco, Mr. Universe shrugged, "What's the point?" As governor, he noted, "you have to pick and choose the fights you want to take on." And every good actor knows, you don't pick a fight with the make-up person.
I truly wish Schwarzenegger were more serious about cutting state spending and curbing out-of-control pension benefits for state and municipal workers, as they threaten to consume a huge chunk of government budgets years from now. Pensions are the ticking time bomb a true hero would stop.
Then again, even on the campaign trail, the Austrian Oak is more fiscally responsible than his Democratic rival, Treasurer Phil Angelides. Despite the shortfall, Angelides promises voters today's government plus more spending and a middle-class tax cut. By over-promising, Angelides has deprived state Dems of at least being able to point to their nominee as the serious candidate.
In his third year -- in his sequel to the recall campaign -- the governator is the serious candidate. He knows how to work across the aisle, how difficult the job is and that he has to accomplish more hard stuff if he wants to leave behind a legacy worthy of his star power.