The Governor

Posted: Jul 15, 2004 12:00 AM

     SAN DIEGO -- From this metropolis to the rural stretches near the Oregon border, California's contentment with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is palpable. And measurable: at 65 percent, his job approval after eight months in office is five points higher than ever achieved by his hero, Gov. Reagan. Schwarzenegger's success -- a happy audience is an entertainer's sovereign measure of success -- involves substantive and atmospheric achievements.

     Bismarck, a cynic, supposedly said about dealing with political opponents that you can do anything with children if you will play with them. Schwarzenegger, no cynic, is a genuinely ebullient and friendly fellow whose report card says he plays well with others.

     By bestowing on them such kindnesses as invitations to join him for cigars in his smoking tent on the Capitol lawn, he has done in Sacramento what George Bush vowed to do but has failed to do in Washington -- produce an ambiance of bipartisanship. But in Sacramento, as elsewhere, bipartisanship often is the elevation of the shared interests of the political class over the public interest.

     In Washington, last November's passage by Congress of the prescription drug entitlement was made possible by the bipartisan pretense that its 10-year cost would be only $400 billion. That perishable fiction -- a few weeks later it was adjusted sharply upward, not for the last time -- enabled Republicans and Democrats to feign fiscal responsibility while currying favor with a huge constituency, the elderly.

     In Sacramento, bipartisanship has produced what probably will be a very perishable solution to the state's fiscal crisis. Schwarzenegger, who was made governor by a plebiscitary process -- the recall of Gov. Gray Davis -- promptly used California's plebiscitary political culture, and the initiative process, to pass Proposition 57, authorizing the state to borrow $15 billion.

     State Sen. Tom McClintock, the conservative who had the temerity -- lese-majeste, it seemed -- to run against Schwarzenegger in the recall scramble, says that although Proposition 57 was sold to voters as borrowing merely to cover past expenditures, at least $2 billion of it will be used to paper over subsequent spending decisions. He says that in the 14 months from May 1 through next June 30, there will be a 54 percent increase -- from $33 billion to $50.7 billion -- in debt backed by general fund revenues.

     ``Borrowed money,'' he says dryly, ``may feel just like real money when it's sitting in our pockets, but we have to pay it back.'' However, that concerns tomorrow, and as an entertainment -- the musical ``Annie'' -- taught, tomorrow is always a day away. Schwarzenegger, a political rookie, has a precocious understanding of the Annie principle of governance: Voters lavish approval on leaders who arrange for future voters to pay for current consumption of government services.

     He has wrung some money -- not as much as he sought or as his budget assumes -- from Indian casinos. He has begun reforming California's job-destroying workers' compensation system. But his first budget is a pastiche of optimistic assumptions, creative accounting and largely cosmetic ``sacrifices'' purchased from interest groups by promising them expensive recompense, soon. The bills will come due in 2006, when Schwarzenegger will be seeking re-election.

     Meanwhile, he husbands his popularity so he can govern as no previous governor has -- by using his celebrity to cow the Legislature with threats to enact policies through initiatives. This practice offends the spirit of the national Constitution's guarantee that every state shall have a republican form of government. The essence of that form is representation, by which the people do not make laws, they decide who will make them -- legislators. Not surprisingly, Schwarzenegger has said that California should have a part-time legislature because it ``already doesn't have enough to do.'' 

     Swiftly, the great question of California politics has been inverted. Nine months ago it was: Can celebrity -- celebrity far greater than Ronald Reagan's in his pre-presidential years -- in the service of a sharp but unseasoned political intelligence govern this vast, troubled state? Now the question is: Can California be effectively governed only by the threat of plebiscitary actions? That is, can it be governed only by a megacelebrity who can move multitudes to sign petitions to get propositions on the ballot, and who can attract millions of dollars to pass them?

     A century ago, California populists' rationale for ballot initiatives was that, being initiated by ordinary citizens, they would empower the many, who are weak. Today Schwarzenegger uses the threat of initiatives to magnify the power of most powerful person in the state, the governor.