Richard Reeves

Citizen Schwarzenegger Upsetting His Party

LOS ANGELES -- In the movie "Dave," a presidential look-alike, played by Kevin Kline, becomes the chief executive for a while when the real one, also played by Kevin Kline, dies in an embarrassing bedroom scene. The White House staff pretends the chief never died and proceeds to run the country using the ordinary guy, Dave, as a front.

Dave, of course, begins to use the power of the White House in strange and wonderful ways. He reforms the federal budget by calling in his accountant, played by Charles Grodin, who sits at a dining room table, takes out a pad and pencil and, using some common sense, begins to create a budget people can understand and afford. Audiences spontaneously began to applaud that scene.

Why not? Common sense and citizen politics look good to most us. The majority of Americans seem ever to be fed up with politics as usual. Enter Arnold Schwarzenegger here in California. He sounds different -- I don't just mean the accent -- and has proposed "Dave"-like solutions to problems that more experienced politicians-as-usual tell us are too complicated to understand and we should not bother our pretty little heads with such things.

Citizen Schwarzenegger, a Republican, has been getting high approval ratings since winning the governorship in a recall process that really was too complicated to be understood by many voters. But he won hearts and minds by being famous, charming, rich and by advocating reforms that did seem like common sense to many voters.

His ideas, ranked here roughly by their popularity in state polls included: (1) across-the-board budget cuts when state spending outpaces revenues; (2) replacing tenure-based teachers' pay schedules with a merit system; (3) having judges rather than self-interested legislators draw legislative and congressional district lines; (4) replacing the most expensive public-employee pension plans with something like 401(k) savings plans; (5) relaxing state regulations (including those designed to protect the environment) to make it possible to build lower-cost housing across this very expensive state.

Older politicians, including leaders of his own party, humored him as if he was just being "Ahnold!" at the kitchen table. But they are not laughing anymore, because Schwarzenegger insists he really means it about No. 3, his scheme to try to take politics out of reapportionment.

The argument he has used is that allowing politicians to, in effect, carve out their own districts is to guarantee the re-election of incumbents -- and he points out that in the 153 congressional and legislative seats that were at stake here in the 2004 elections, not a single one resulted in a change in the party of the officeholder.

He takes that a step further by arguing that such an incumbent-protection system, in which neither party risks losing what they already have, is the reason compromise has been replaced by deadlock in state politics. The state legislature seems forever polarized as extremists of left and right win safe party seats in Sacramento -- and in Washington, too. His solution: panels of retired judges (and computers) to create new and presumably competitive elections.

And the reaction: His own party, the Republicans, are screaming that the big man must be crazy. Republican National Chairman Ken Mehlman is among the compatriots who are telling Schwarzenegger to forget about it. One of the state's 20 Republican congressmen, John T. Doolittle, told the Los Angeles Times: "It would seem to me self-defeating if we set in motion forces that could result in the loss of seats in California, which in conjunction with a loss of a handful of seats elsewhere in the country could spell a return to the minority for Republicans in the House. I just don't think that's a risk worth taking."

It is not that Republicans do so well now in blue California's congressional races -- there are 33 Democrats in the state delegation to Washington -- it is really that those Republicans, including Doolittle, have safe seats. And so, of course, do the Democrats. Which is the way both sides here want it. What does Schwarzenegger think he is, a reformer or something?

Well, we shall see. Inside political rules like election laws and redistricting plans are what separates politicians from do-gooders. And reforms rarely accomplish as advertised. Witness the effects of campaign finance reform, initiative and referendum, term limits and the 18-year-old vote: Each reform seemed to create a new set of its own problems.

But hope springs eternal in citizens and the young in heart. So far, Schwarzenegger has protected some of his innocence, but the grown-ups of his own party are determined to stop all that nonsense right now -- before voters figure out the rules of the game.

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