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Image Just Isn't Enough

October 02, 2003

California's voters have spoken -- at least to the pollsters. If the results of The Times' new poll hold up, the state will soon be looking at Gov. Schwarzenegger. Then what? The lack of serious answers to that question should give Californians pause.

It's effectively a two-man race now, with Arnold Schwarzenegger leading. His appeal is upfront: He's a big guy with a great grin who exudes strength and promises change. In that sense, he brings something to the campaign that Gray Davis doesn't. When asked for details, however, his script flops.

What ails the state can't be fixed by a Hollywood actor spouting "Terminator" lines. Sacramento's problems include a strangled budget process, a corrupt system of campaign financing and too many amateur politicians. Cleaning house, auditing the budget and capping spending, Schwarzenegger's chief solutions, would apply some Band-Aids but wouldn't move toward the big reforms that could improve political life and government. His "plan for governing" issued Wednesday ran one page.

A question this week about overlaps between California's Environmental Protection Agency and the federal EPA brought this response from the candidate: "We have to strip that down and get rid of some of those agencies." A spokesman assigned to damage control explained that Schwarzenegger didn't really mean he wanted to get rid of Cal-EPA, which oversees the state's air quality, water quality and pesticide use.

As the absurdity of Schwarzenegger's plan to close the budget gap without new taxes, education cuts or new borrowing has become clearer, his staff has had to backpedal about the borrowing part. Voters in the Times poll said the deficit was the state's biggest problem, but Schwarzenegger has not proposed workable solutions.

Even sympathetic pundits are scratching to say something nice. Columnist Dan Weintraub of the Sacramento Bee acknowledged this week that about the only thing that could rescue Schwarzenegger's budget ideas was $5 billion extra from the federal government -- and that's in the current year alone.

Everything about Schwarzenegger is scripted to appeal to the disaffected without scaring them. He doesn't take follow-up questions and he avoids print journalists. No one is asking the tough questions, or at least not in a place where Schwarzenegger would be compelled to answer. Oprah and Larry King certainly won't push back. His appearances are crafted for maximum viewership, minimum toughness. He knows the power of image and has built his campaign around it.

Image-building is not new, nor is avoiding reporters -- President Bush likes TV for taking his message directly to the people -- but image at the expense of all else is being practiced in this campaign at levels seldom imagined. Political advisors nationwide are waiting to see if Schwarzenegger gets away with his style of campaigning, and the results will drive the 2004 presidential election.

If Ronald Reagan could win a fair-and-square general election, that's what Schwarzenegger should try to do. California would certainly get a change by dumping Davis in favor of Schwarzenegger. But the recall campaign has produced no evidence that the change would be for the better.

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