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Governor's Star Power Will Meet Hard Reality

March 10, 2004|John J. Pitney Jr. | John J. Pitney Jr. is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.

Bodybuilders understand leverage. In Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's case, the leverage is a matter of economics and politics as well as physics. He leveraged his early bodybuilding success into movie roles, which in turn he leveraged into global celebrity. Now he is leveraging his fame into real political power.

Our state has seen celebrity politicians before: Helen Gahagan Douglas, George Murphy, Sonny Bono and Ronald Reagan. But Schwarzenegger's star burns bigger and brighter. When he announced his candidacy last summer, his latest movie was still playing in theaters, on its way to making $150 million.

His political venture might have turned into a self-promotional lark, just as the Minnesota governorship was for his "Predator" co-star, Jesse Ventura. But Schwarzenegger is smarter than that. (There's a reason why he got first billing in the movie while Ventura got fifth.) He knows that his celebrity gives him unique political opportunities -- like the ability to draw crowds and cameras and to raise millions from star-struck donors -- and he's making the most of them.

Earlier this month, the limelight and the cash enabled Schwarzenegger to win voter approval of ballot propositions to address the state's budget problems. The passage of the $15-billion bond measure is especially striking because it lagged far behind in early polls. Could anyone else have moved so many votes? Would people have remembered the ads if their only star had been Controller Steve Westly?

Politicians fear ballot-box mojo, giving Schwarzenegger a strategic edge. His victory on the propositions sends legislators a message on other issues: Compromise on my terms or I will go to the people. Take part of a loaf or I will get the voters to give me the whole bakery.

No other governor could make such a threat so convincingly. His clout in the "outside game" of initiative politics thus gives him leverage in the "inside game" of legislative bargaining.

That's not all. He simultaneously practices intimidation and ingratiation. He may scare the legislators, but he also courts them. No less than campaign contributors and ordinary voters, Sacramento lawmakers like the idea of hanging out with a world-class celebrity. He plays it to advantage.

Some skeptics have said the passage of the propositions means little because there was no organized resistance. They miss the point. Schwarzenegger worked hard to preempt opposition. He struck deals with key lawmakers and got other political leaders to take his side. Such tactics also send a message to would-be foes: Join Arnold or stand alone.

So will Schwarzenegger move effortlessly from strength to strength? Hardly. Even the highest-soaring leaders eventually feel the awful pull of political gravity. In the months ahead, Schwarzenegger and the Legislature must make painful choices on spending. Cutting the budget could hurt people who rely on social services. Raising taxes could drive away affluent taxpayers and businesses, along with the jobs they create. The budget numbers are bad, and for all his skills, the governor cannot escape arithmetic.

There are limits to his ability to drive the Legislature. Most state lawmakers have safe seats, so few would sweat if he threatened to campaign for their opponents this fall. Their main electoral worry consists of party primaries, which could someday work against Schwarzenegger. The governor is a centrist, a position that does not always appeal to those who vote in the primaries. In 2006, Democratic legislative candidates might try to stoke up liberal voters by attacking him from the left. Republican candidates might play to conservatives who dislike his stands on social issues. In politics, as on the freeway, the middle of the road can be a dangerous place.

If his celebrity does not guarantee success, neither will political gravity guarantee failure. Schwarzenegger is surely ready for the ups and downs that lie ahead. In bodybuilding, acting and business, he has repeatedly fallen down and found a way to get up again. That makes sense. After all, bodybuilders understand gravity as well as leverage.

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