Paul Jacob

Arnold Schwarzenegger has joined the race for California's hopefully soon-to-be-vacated governor's seat. Great. Arnold's a cool guy.

And Governor Gray Davis is a disgrace who deserves to be recalled. Totally. He tells too many true lies--for instance, about the $38 billion deficit that was piling up on his desk last year even as election day drew near. Davis's management of the power crisis didn't exactly demonstrate electrifying leadership either.

Californians have been getting a raw deal. No wonder Governor Davis squeaked back into office thanks only to the advantages of incumbency and the political weakness of his opponent.

Schwarzenegger is not just another dreary career politician. And not just another mega-muscled mega-millionaire. He came to America, he says, to be in a country where "the government wasn't always breathing down your neck or standing on your shoes." Starting with nothing, Schwarzenegger flexed his freedom to become a super-successful bodybuilder, movie star, and businessman. Whatever disagreements one might have with his politics, such can-do spirit deserves respect.

Davis too has talent. His one great ability, that of all career politicians, is the ability to cling to power. But even if he barely survives the recall, Davis won't have forever to turn California into a wasteland. He's term-limited. In a few years Californians will be rid of him regardless.

Of course, most politicians hate term limits.

You could hardly pile up more proof of this in California. In 1990, led by Willie Brown--at that time the Speaker of the Assembly--the politicians and special interests spent millions to stem the term limit tide. Then, after voters had passed term limits, the politicians spent millions more to overturn term limits in court.

Now the politicians have taken the battle to the ballot box. In 1990, Speaker Willie Brown, fearful of losing his job in the Assembly, spearheaded the effort to skewer term limits. In 2002, fearful of losing his job in the Senate, Senate President Pro Tem John Burton led a $10 million campaign to pass the politician-initiated Proposition 45--which would have tacked 4 years onto the tenure of state legislators. But voters saw through the deceptively worded measure and, in last year's March primary, terminated it.

Now, just 18 months after a stern rebuff, California's career politicians, like "Terminator" sequels or the Energizer bunny, are at it again, getting ready to campaign to save the job not just of Gray Davis but of every Sacramento politician about to be termed out of office. Including, of course, Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson, currently serving his third term.

The scam is to split up this year's primaries so that the presidential primary is held in March while primaries for other offices are held in June. A politician-sponsored measure to extend terms would appear on the March ballot, not the June one. (Why did you already know that?) This way, if endangered politicians succeed in conning the voters in March, they have time to file for the June primary and prepare for said primary. Brilliant, eh?

The politicians may be running out of script ideas, though. The latest notion constantly being floated is that voters should kill term limits because, otherwise, they, the politicians, are sure to keep doing a lousy job. According to this line of argument, state legislators need ten years or so in office just to graduate from training wheels.

Of course, it's nonsense to suppose that politicians never did lousy jobs in the days before term limits. Legislative term limits were passed in 1990 in California, but only started kicking out officeholders in 1997. The phony power "deregulation" that turned out to be such a disaster was passed in 1996. But let's go back in time even further.

In 1978, voters passed Proposition 13 to impose a cap on out-of-control property taxes--taxes forcing some Californians out of their homes. Where were all the super-expert politicians with their combined centuries of experience then? Why did the voters have to take matters into their own hands to save their own homes?

Of course, term limits don't guarantee good policy. But they do guarantee that makers of bad policy won't be able to stick around forever, sticking it to us forever. And fact is, the kinds of things you need to succeed as a political leader are also the kinds of things you need to succeed in the regular world. Rock-hard integrity is always good, for example.

Yet this campaign theme--how the only way we can improve the current crew of politicians is to keep them in power forever--will apparently be the crux of the new anti-term-limits crusade soon to be sprung on the citizens of California.

Amazing what you can find out when you have spies in the enemy camp.... Golly, this is just like that movie "Commando."


Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.