SACRAMENTO — A chastened Arnold Schwarzenegger took complete blame Thursday for the thrashing he endured at the polls and pledged to be a more collaborative governor in the coming year, offering Democrats an extraordinary role in crafting his agenda.
In his first public comments since election night, Schwarzenegger said he would rely far less on campaigns and ballot fights as a governing strategy in the coming year, pushing various goals instead through slow, painstaking negotiations with his legislative adversaries if that's what it takes.
So determined is he to adopt a more centrist and inclusive approach, Schwarzenegger said, that he will ask Democrats to help him craft his State of the State speech -- the blueprint for his 2006 policy goals.
It was that speech 10 months ago that set the course for Tuesday's debacle, in which voters rejected all four initiatives that Schwarzenegger had cast as crucial to California's future. Not one of the eight measures on the ballot passed.
In a reference to his famous movie role, he said at a news conference: "If I were to do another Terminator movie, I would have the Terminator travel back in time to tell Arnold not to have a special election."
That got a laugh.
"The buck stops with me," he said. " ... One should not shy away from that, and I would not blame anyone on my team. Because it was my idea to have the special election, and I said this is the year for reform and I told my team: 'You make it happen.... I have no patience, we're not going to wait. This is the year we're going to reform the system.' And it just didn't work out."
The governor began the day meeting privately with the Legislature's four leaders to talk about what comes next. The top two Democrats, who had battled him throughout the special election campaign, emerged to say they appreciated his contrition.
In turn, the Senate Democratic leader said he was prepared to forget the campaign skirmishes and work cooperatively on a state agenda that might include a multibillion-dollar push to improve California's network of highways, ports and levees.
Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland) said in an interview: "The order of the day was for the governor to show California that he has correctly interpreted the results of the election. I think it was a five-star performance, and I don't mean 'performance' in a pejorative way. He needed to rally California back to the capital and back to him. I think he accomplished that. The next thing will be: Was it rhetoric or is it real?"
Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) sounded more circumspect: "There are a lot of areas we can tackle and make a difference for California. The question is: Are we going to walk down that path or not? When you are in a relationship and have a falling out, you kiss and make up the first night back together. You say the right things. But then you have to make sure actions are consistent with words. It will take some time for us to figure this out."
Perhaps his most dogged opponent, the nurses union, seemed unimpressed with the governor's display.
"If he had won, there would be no talk of compromise," said California Nurses Assn. Executive Director Rose Ann DeMoro. "In fact, two days after the election he has the same advisors. He's kept the same corporate sponsors, the ones who are on the road to China with him."
Schwarzenegger is to arrive Monday in Beijing for a trade mission.
After a public repudiation of his "year of reform" agenda, the governor may find it difficult to recapture voters' confidence.
"His problem right now is people think he is full of hot air," said Tony Quinn, co-editor of the California Target Book, a nonpartisan election guide.
"He was larger than life, not a Gray Davis or Pete Wilson, who were technicians," Quinn said. "He said, 'I am Arnold. I can move mountains.' But then he didn't deliver.... He delivered midgets when he promised giants."
Schwarzenegger's remarks had an introspective tone, something he has rarely shown in public. He is coming off a campaign in which he exhibited utter confidence in his take-it-to-the-voter methods, devoting little time to public self-examination.
Now he is conceding that he needs to rethink the core plan for his administration. He said he had anticipated that the theme for 2005, the second year of his term, would be reform. His error, he said, was moving too quickly.
"Those kinds of reforms we're talking about -- maybe it takes a year, two years, three years," Schwarzenegger said. "And it takes more collaboration and more working together. So I got that message.
"That's the thing that I've learned from this election year: The people said, 'Initiatives are fine, but go work it out with the legislators.' It was clearly the supply-and-demand rule here. There was a lot of supply of initiatives but not enough demand for it."