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The Anger Initiative

June 10, 2005

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger remains stubbornly attached to the politics of anger -- manufactured and otherwise. But the public, and some of his former allies, are discovering (yet again) the pitfalls of government by ballot initiative, as well as becoming ever more weary of the permanent campaign.

Schwarzenegger still appears committed to calling a special election in November on his pet ballot measures, including one to limit state spending. The proposed cap was the cornerstone of the governor's agenda, but now it is generating doubts that have undercut his support among city and county leaders.

Schwarzenegger struck a deal last year to protect funding for localities. The goodwill he earned then is now draining away over concerns that the cap would not just freeze general state spending, but also the hundreds of millions of dollars that cities and counties receive from a sales-tax levy.

It's not the governor's first stumble on ballot initiatives. Earlier this year, he had to abandon reform of public employee pension systems because his ballot measure would have inadvertently cut fire and police survivor benefits.

His initiatives have the usual faults of ballot measures that look for facile solutions to complex problems. Written and financed by Schwarzenegger's campaign organization, they were never examined by impartial legislative experts. But the problem is a government that is perpetually in campaign mode.

The financiers of Schwarzenegger's ballot campaigns are the same people who participate in exclusive conference calls with the governor's advisors (and sometimes Schwarzenegger) on policy and strategy. No follower of big-money politics can profess to be shocked at the basic quid pro quo of money for access. But the latest such call a few days ago (with Times reporters listening in at the invitation of a participant) was an unusually brazen attempt at division.

During the call, Schwarzenegger media expert Don Sipple outlined a strategy to create a "phenomenon of anger" toward public employee unions. Schwarzenegger tried the same kind of wedge politics with teachers and nurses -- and his bullying helped to turn them into sympathetic figures.

This page has criticized public employee unions, particularly their extravagant retirement benefits. We have acknowledged that teachers unions sometimes use their power to the detriment of students. Schwarzenegger's criticisms have merit, but his incessant campaigning crosses into mockery and scorn. Inciting anger is not governing.

Readers of a new biography of former Gov. Edmund G. "Pat" Brown, "California Rising" by Ethan Rarick, may be reminded of more optimistic days. Brown, the Democratic governor from 1959 to 1967, won government reforms and progressive social programs by working within the legislative process, and with both parties. Republicans returned the favor by giving him respect.

For his first year, it seemed the governor was trying to foster a similar atmosphere with his tent-and-cigar sessions. It now appears that was little more than smoke.

Granted, Schwarzenegger is dealing with a Legislature drained of expertise and vision by term limits. And the drawing of "safe seats" has helped clear the Assembly of moderates. But the governor's more recent tactics have further hardened the polarization. Now Democrats watch his missteps with glee and spurn effective negotiations. Instead of seeking common ground, they vote down any measure that might make Schwarzenegger look good -- even rejecting a plan for fresh fruit in school cafeterias.

Schwarzenegger has repeatedly said he wants to restore "the California dream." That dream was built in large part by governors and legislators who dared big. Schwarzenegger has only a few days left to do something daring, such as calling off his special election and his PR dogs. Democrats have a few days left to signal where they'd be willing to compromise. It's a faint hope, but the alternative could make the last years of Gov. Gray Davis look good.

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