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California | Steve Lopez / POINTS WEST

Arnold Flexes a Revolution Among the Suffering 'Haves'

October 06, 2003|Steve Lopez

At the heart of the Arnold Schwarzenegger campaign is a simple notion: The average Joe is being ripped off.

Sacramento has its hand in Joe's pockets, Gov. Gray Davis is the chief thief, and it's time to get even with him and rebuke the whole rotten institution he represents.

The point was beautifully made when Arnold gave the signal in Costa Mesa last week, and a wrecking ball fell on an Oldsmobile spray-painted with "Davis Car Tax." Spectators roared as if it were the Boston Tea Party. But on the road with Arnold's California Comeback Express, I noticed something at the rallies in Costa Mesa, San Diego and Arcadia.

The revolutionaries don't seem to be suffering as much as you'd expect, given their zeal for storming the walls. They dress reasonably well (particularly in San Diego), they drive cars the size of PT boats, and they struggle when I ask what exactly is missing in their lives.

"I guess taxes are too high," a retiree told me in Costa Mesa.

Maybe so, but they're higher in many other states. And although California doesn't have the friendliest business climate, or anywhere close to it, it's among the nation's leaders in wages.

The hike in the annual car tax puts it among the highest in the nation. But on the average car, we're talking about a jump from $70 to $210. Not exactly chump change, but it's quite a spectacle to see people delirious over a savings of $140, especially when it will mean $4 billion in cuts that Schwarzenegger has yet to explain.

In Arcadia, a real estate agent told me only Arnold can rescue us from these troubled times.

"Wait a minute," I said. "Aren't home prices higher than ever?"

You'd think these are salad days for a real estate agent. But I guess you can never have too much.

We're in the most prosperous state of the richest country in the history of man, but how can you feel good about yourself -- let alone worry about the textbook shortage -- when your next-door neighbor just got a big-screen TV two feet wider than yours?

For those who feel they're not getting their fair share, Arnold's medicine goes down easy, and it's an amazing thing to observe. A Hollywood actor worth $200 million is telling regular Joes he understands their pain, and they lap it up.

He rails against high electric bills even though he was reportedly hobnobbing with Enron villain Ken Lay at the height of the energy crisis, and Arnold's Army cheers.

He promises changes, but not a plan to make them happen, and the juggernaut rolls on.

What's at work is a combination of Davis' failures, the hypnotic effect of Arnold's celebrity, and the Hollywood-inspired myth that every complex problem has a simple solution -- namely, to terminate it.

Plus, Schwarzenegger is a better politician than Davis.

Dan Schnur, a Republican strategist, says Arnold has tapped into something that Davis was dumb and blind to: Many lower-middle-class and middle-class people think they're getting the short end of the stick.

"They think the rich are getting away with murder on tax loopholes and that sort of thing, and they think the poor are living off the welfare gravy train," Schnur says. "These people are stuck in the middle, and they're mad."

They're saying, what about me? Davis held up a target for this rage when he signed the bill giving driver's licenses to illegals. Like I've said before, I've got mixed feelings about that privilege. California's already got too many people, and I think the bill sends the wrong message.

But for many in Arnold's Army, it means another grab for their wallets. They're going to be laying out more of their take-home for the education and health care of illegals.

"Voters are mad at politicians who don't pay attention to them," Schnur says.

The only voters Davis paid attention to, in fact, were people with checkbooks.

On Tuesday it probably won't matter that the economic bust, term limits that stack the Legislature with amateurs, and state initiatives that devour the budget have done as much as Davis to create California's problems.

What will matter is that Schwarzenegger has promised 30 pieces of silver and a clear conscience, regardless of who gets hurt.

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