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A campaign without end

The People's Machine Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Rise of Blockbuster Democracy Joe Mathews PublicAffairs: 456 pp. $26.95

July 30, 2006|Peter Schrag | Peter Schrag, a columnist and former editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee, is the author, most recently, of "California: America's High Stakes Experiment."

IF you're a political junkie, Joe Mathews' book, "The People's Machine," will be catnip. If you're not a political junkie, beware: It could easily make you one.

Mathews, a Los Angeles Times reporter who has covered much of Arnold Schwarzenegger's intense three-year political career -- yes, it's been only three years -- believes that the governor, in his fusion of entertainment with politics and of conventional government with direct democracy, represents a new phenomenon in American public life.

Except for the labels Mathews uses -- "blockbuster democracy," "the people's machine" -- that's not altogether a new take. A lot of politicians -- Huey P. Long Jr., Fiorello H. LaGuardia, William Jennings Bryan -- put on good shows for "the people." In our history, a good deal of the nation's entertainment has come from politicians and preachers. The Romans offered the people bread and circuses.

Nor is Schwarzenegger the first California politician to use ballot measures as part of his political strategy. Republican Gov. Pete Wilson's reelection in 1994 owed a great deal to his embrace of hot-button crime and immigration initiatives. Jerry Brown, now the Democratic candidate for attorney general, is still trumpeting his authorship of the California Political Reform Act, which helped carry him to victory in the governor's race in 1974.

But Mathews is right that no one has built ballot measures -- both as instruments of policy and as threats -- into the very essence of governance. The three years have been a nonstop mall-to-mall campaign -- from recall (2003) to recovery bonds (2004) to political reform (2005) to infrastructure bonds, tougher penalties for sex crimes and reelection (2006). Although the governor's reform agenda famously crashed last year -- some of it before it even reached the ballot -- there's no sign that his essential approach will change.

As Schwarzenegger, who is as much a Republican maverick as he is a Republican moderate, said after his reform initiatives lost in November, there's always a new movie. The tough-guy act ("I call them girlie men") bombed, so now he's Mr. Nice Guy, as in the early days of his governorship. But blockbuster ballot-box democracy rolls on: politics as shtick. The irony here, as Mathews says, is that Schwarzenegger is trying "to harness California's century-old system of direct democracy to build precisely the thing it had been designed to counter: a political machine. Of course [this would be] run not on patronage but on stardust.... "

The real appeal of Mathews' book is in the detailed, sometimes hour-by-hour story that his extensive reporting and proximity to Schwarzenegger's political operation allow him to tell. It's a story with a remarkable cast of characters, the 135 candidates hoping to replace Gov. Gray Davis in the recall as well as the old Wilson team -- George Gorton, Bob White, Don Sipple and Wilson himself -- who were waiting for a marketable star like Schwarzenegger.

There is the ever-changing roster of senior staffers -- three finance directors, two chiefs of staff, two communications directors -- plus First Lady Maria Shriver and the Schwarzeneggers' (and Kennedy family's) longtime friend, Hollywood lawyer Bonnie Reiss, who's been a fixture in the administration. There is the ever-shifting list of pollsters, advance people, stage managers, speechwriters, lawyers, publicists and flunkies who keep this show on the road.

Then there are the political negotiating partners: the irascible Democrat John Burton, president pro tem of the state Senate until he was termed out in December 2004, who liked to shoot the breeze with the governor in the smoking tent outside the governor's office; the muscular prison guards union; and the various Indian casino gaming interests who were "ripping us off."

And, of course, there's California Teachers Assn. President Barbara Kerr, who thought she had a deal with Schwarzenegger on school funding during the fiscal drought of 2004, a deal he broke the following year. That break -- and the clumsy way it was handled -- was probably the biggest weapon in the campaign against the governor's ballot measures in the 2005 election.

Mathews portrays Schwarzenegger as a good listener and quick study. But, like other reporters, he concludes that the governor's insistence on constant "action" and his overestimation of his ability to sell anything -- especially after his first-year successes passing his $15-billion recovery bond and reforming workers compensation -- led to the confusion of proposals and flawed ballot measures that brought on the disaster of 2005.

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