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Star Power Just Won't Be Enough

August 15, 2003|Darry Sragow | Darry Sragow, a Democratic campaign advisor, is a managing director of Public Strategies, a public affairs consulting firm.

If Arnold Schwarzenegger and Warren Buffett teamed up to produce a Hollywood project, that would make headlines. But when these two stars align to fix California's government, that's a double take.

It's true that many Californians want a governor with a fresh perspective, someone not beholden to the special interests and political establishment. But they also want a governor who knows how to get things done in Sacramento, who understands that politics requires a unique set of skills and experience not found in a strictly business setting.

Beyond burnished image and media attention, however, what Buffett brings to the table isn't entirely clear. His addition to the Schwarzenegger team reinforces the message that a Schwarzenegger administration would attract well-known, successful supporters. But Schwarzenegger's bulking up with luminaries does nothing to assure undecided voters that such appointments can really compensate for his lack of familiarity with how state government runs. For better or worse, Schwarzenegger is the leading man in his campaign. His selection of supporting cast members must make sense to the voters.

The choice of Buffett -- a shrewd private investor who has made billions -- for the role of guru of state finances isn't immediately credible. Government bookkeeping is unique to itself; government revenue isn't a matter of savvy stock-market moves. Even for a man like Buffet, untangling the state's fiscal problems would leave him on the same learning curve as Schwarzenegger.

Does the state have the time to educate a couple of well-known ingenues?

Meanwhile, the choice of Pete Wilson's 1990s campaign team for the role of senior campaign staff may not resonate well with voters -- especially Latinos, who associate it with Proposition 187's anti-immigrant provisions. And the perceived emergence of Schwarzenegger's wife, Maria Shriver, in the role of power behind the throne ... well, let's give him that. A Republican joining forces with a Kennedy is worth it for the entertainment value alone.

The problem is, this campaign so far seems to be just about entertainment -- a blockbuster appearance on "The Tonight Show" and photo ops with admiring throngs, dramatic announcements about "the team." We've yet to hear anything of political substance. Mostly what we've seen are several notables names in search of a script. Lots of special effects but no plot.

Buffett, to the extent that voters know him, has a reputation for finding hidden value in the corporate world. Yet if there is a connection here between that enviable skill and what it takes to balance the state budget while at the same time fixing our schools, assuring the safety of the public and providing adequate health care, the burden falls to the Schwarzenegger campaign to make that connection, and to make it quickly.

We need to hear Buffett's solutions to the state's fiscal woes long before the credits roll, and this is going to be a short movie. If expenses are going to be massively cut, where does he propose to start? If taxes are to be raised, who does he think should pay the bill?

So how will Warren Buffett fit into a possible Schwarzenegger administration? The answer is that no one knows because the main character has shed no light on what the mission of that administration would be.

Schwarzenegger needs to do the one thing that he seems constitutionally unable to do: Stay out of the spotlight until he's ready for his close-up. Otherwise he risks looking unfocused and confused, more intent on filling the screen with big names than on telling a story that voters can understand.

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