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A Centrist Governor Caught in the Middle

Schwarzenegger can look forward to extremist challenges from both sides.

November 17, 2003|Dan Schnur

It was another action hero turned politician, Harrison Ford in "Air Force One," who borrowed the lesson of a popular children's book to use as the basis for his negotiating strategy.

"Give a mouse a cookie," warned Ford's fictional President James Marshall, "and he's going to want a glass of milk." Marshall was fending off terrorists and murderers.

California's new governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, will be dealing with lobbyists and legislators. But the principle is the same either way: No matter how much you offer people who are used to getting everything, they're always going to want something more.

Schwarzenegger campaigned as a centrist, and he's been putting together an administration that reflects his ideology -- conservative on fiscal issues, moderate on environmental and social matters. But moving forward, his greatest challenge will be steering a middle course between extremists on both ends of the political spectrum for whom patience and gratitude are alien concepts and compromise is synonymous with surrender.

The new governor's first personnel appointments have provided him a lesson in just how balkanized a place the Capitol has become. The ideological diversity of his new staff has given everybody something -- or someone -- to be happy about. But it should be instructive how quickly the same interests that cheer one of his decisions will turn on him with a vengeance when his next choice isn't to their liking.

After five years in power, Democrats and their allies are clearly not happy about sharing the reins of government. They've become accustomed to running things in Sacramento, and the arrival of a moderate Republican has shown just how far they have drifted to the left.

After threats of boycotting the new governor's inauguration today, they've managed to tone down the rhetoric into something faintly resembling conciliation. But their wariness of even incremental change is unsettling, particularly with difficult policy debates still ahead.

Schwarzenegger began his appointments with the seemingly inoffensive decision to nominate Richard Riordan, the former Los Angeles mayor who is as moderate a Republican as ever registered with the party, to the largely ceremonial position of state education secretary. The response from Democrats' allies bordered on hysteria. The state's largest teachers union had a representative on Schwarzenegger's transition team; he resigned in protest. Consumer groups, for their part, reacted angrily when the governor-elect selected advisors with backgrounds in business.

But the most unforgiving group on the left has been the California chapter of the National Organization for Women, whose executive director reacted with suspicion to the news that roughly half of Schwarzenegger's appointments have been female, including the key positions of chief of staff, budget director and cabinet secretary. "We think it's political -- so many, so quickly," said the executive director of an organization whose stated goal is to create more opportunities for women in politics and government.

Republicans are hungry, so they've been somewhat better behaved so far. They've been out of the governor's office for five long years, which made it much easier to overlook Schwarzenegger's moderate tendencies on certain issues as part of the price of getting rid of Gray Davis.

But this honeymoon will be seriously tested as well.

Repealing the car tax increase and reversing the illegal-immigrant driver's license bill would be a good start for the new governor with his party's conservative base, as was naming a hard-line deficit hawk as his finance director. But the murmurs started when the environmental activists and a former Ted Kennedy staffer started showing up. And just wait until the new governor signs his first bill on abortion rights.

In Sacramento, the political center can be a lonely place. Pete Wilson spent his years as governor fighting with the conservatives in his party. Davis ultimately surrendered to the liberals in his.

Elections are won from the center, because that's where the voters tend to gravitate. But governing from the middle is more difficult, because the voters lose interest and are replaced by politicians elected in safe districts and special interests paid to push from the extremes.

So Schwarzenegger's command of public and media attention could be an invaluable asset in keeping voters engaged and getting the Capitol's entrenched interests to toe the line for him.

In his former career, California's new governor fought cyborgs, aliens and androids. But taming the Capitol mice might be his greatest challenge.

Dan Schnur, a Republican consultant, was manager of Peter Ueberroth's campaign for governor in the recall election.

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