Schwarzenegger can use popularity to effect change

Posted: Oct 10, 2003 12:00 AM

Give Governor-elect Schwarzenegger his due. They threw everything at him.

The Los Angeles Times became a journalistic Manhattan project, working late into the night on every possible calculation to nuke the Terminator. Arianna Huffington, the Leona Helmsley of know-nothing liberalism, went after Schwarzenegger in classic Huffington style - like an annoying woman at a cocktail party.

California feminists suddenly remembered that they're against sexual harassment (defined as when a Republican behaves inappropriately). Gray Davis came a hair short of simply declaring that Arnold Schwarzenegger eats puppies. I even saw a factoid on CNN that said Schwarzenegger was accused of being a "Hitler-loving serial groper."

"The Daily Show" on Comedy Central ran a hilarious send-up when it reported that Schwarzenegger had been accused of "inappropriately fondling Hitler."

But at the end of the day, Schwarzenegger's enemies were left to lick their wounds, kick their cats and spin their defeat in uproariously absurd contortions of logic.

Schwarzenegger wasn't my candidate, and I was skeptical of the recall from the outset. But you've got to give him credit for one thing: Considering the array of forces against him, particularly in liberal feminist circles, he actually managed to make his greatest movie line a reality. In "Conan the Barbarian," he was asked, "What is best in life?" and he responded, "To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of the women!"

Well, by that standard, Schwarzenegger's certainly enjoying the good life. But you can listen to lamentations only so long before you've got to get to work. And he's got a lot of work to do.

Gray Davis spent the last few months battening down every liberal program possible on the sinking kleptocracy he captained. Davis signed laws that were too liberal or expensive - even for him - when his job looked secure, but were easy concessions when he needed the support of gays, unions, Hispanics and the rest of the Democratic base including, no doubt, gay Hispanic union members, but that's not important right now.

What is important now and into the future is that Schwarzenegger will have a hard time undoing any of that. He will have an even harder time undoing the grand edifice of extravagant California liberalism that has been constructed over the last decade and made even more unmanageable by a constant stream of referenda by an electorate that wants lavish services and low taxes.

But that would have been true of anybody. Indeed, the irony is that while Schwarzenegger was in most respects the least qualified major candidate (I don't count Huffington as a major candidate; she was at best a major nuisance), he alone might have what it takes to get the job done.

State Sen. Tom McClintock, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante and even Gray Davis all had better credentials for being governor. But there was - and is - one thing Schwarzenegger has that none of the others had: popularity.

If Gray Davis were on fire, most Californians wouldn't even bother to spit on him. Cruz Bustamante, a Latino Mr. Whipple look-alike who had little to say and was as dull as dry paint saying it, had little support outside those who believe being a Hispanic is a major qualification (there's nothing wrong with being Hispanic of course, but, really, who cares?).

But Schwarzenegger is popular, really popular.

Obviously, such popularity is useful at the polls - that's how democracy works, after all - but it's also powerful in office. I would have preferred McClintock as governor, but it's entirely possible that McClintock would have been powerless to effect real change in California. He would have been perceived as the ringleader of the "right wing cabal" that Gray Davis kept prattling about.

Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger can campaign around the state putting popular pressure on recalcitrant Democratic legislators. He's already proved he can go over the heads of the liberal establishment in California and speak directly to Californians. Not many politicians can survive a weeklong barrage from the L.A. Times, but he did.

The question is whether Schwarzenegger will use that popularity to be a "revolutionary" figure, as some of his boosters, including blogger-columnist Andrew Sullivan, suggest, or whether he'll quickly fall into the sort of difference-splitting moderate mushiness we've come to expect from Michael Bloomberg, Arlen Specter and other RINOs (Republicans In Name Only).

I'm hoping for the best, but I have my doubts. The presence of so many movie stars and Kennedys on his victory podium is not a great portent. But Schwarzenegger deserves the benefit of the doubt for the job he has to do. And he deserves some credit for the campaign he ran to get that job.