Arnold Schwarzenegger succeeded a governor who had conducted his entire career getting his next job instead of doing the one he had. Especially following this wretched act, Schwarzenegger had one overriding duty to the voters, a duty he was particularly well-situated to discharge, partly because he didn’t need the job, either for fame or money or self-respect, and partly because Davis had so completely self-destructed that Arnold came into office with relatively few debts to factions or supporters.
What California needed Arnold to do was to speak some plain truths about the choices facing the state. These could have been framed in a number of ways, but the core message is,
“We can have a high-service government, with good schools, recreation, humane welfare, excellent environmental policies, and all the rest of it: we’re rich and lucky. But we can only have those things if we’re willing to pay the taxes that pay for them. We can also have a low-service government, and leave people to arrange their schooling and other services privately, with low taxes. Of course the rich will have a lot more success at this than the poor, in big houses on large lots with a swimming pool in back, but it’s a legitimate political choice.
“Those are the only two paths for us. There is no high-service, low-tax future for California, and I’m not going to promise you one. If you want a governor who will lie to you about having good schools, great universities, and up-to-date transportation with no heavy lifting by anyone, you can vote for him in the next election, but this administration is about treating each other like grownups and telling the truth. There is certainly waste and abuse in California; there always is. But there isn’t anything like enough to pay for what we used to enjoy with the taxes we pay now, even if we could completely stamp it out.”
Of course he said nothing of the kind, and will be remembered as a mountebank and a lightweight. I never viewed Schwarzenegger as a thinker or a person of vision, but his tough-guy persona offered some promise that he could resist the mutual seduction by which voters and elected officials tell each other that some accounting trick or magic administrative reform will make two equal four. Without inside information from Sacramento, I conjecture that his well-known fuzziness about the differences among parts he has played on screen, his ability to physically lift really heavy objects, and who he really is, put him in the grip of the crowd of acolytes and hangers-on to whom it matters a lot that their boss get re-elected, and who will always counsel that he play to the voters’ desperate desire to avoid real work.
Too bad. Why is it so hard to realize that there are a lot worse things to lose than your job? I wonder if Warren Beatty will do any better…