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Arnold the utopian

January 14, 2007|Bill Whalen | BILL WHALEN, former chief speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson, is a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

THERE ARE two ways to view Arnold Schwarzenegger's skiing mishap: His fractured femur was a bad break, or it's the latest example of bad luck to befall a newly reelected California governor.

Hearken back to 1995, the last time a Republican governor began a second term. Pete Wilson underwent surgery on his vocal chords and lost his public voice -- and his dream of being president. Gray Davis, a Democrat, experienced an even more painful procedure during the first -- and last -- year of his second term: a voter recall.

So, odd though it may sound (and as painful as it assuredly is), Schwarzenegger has so far gotten off easy: His voice can still be heard, and he still has his job.

Odd is a good word to describe the governor's coordinates on the political landscape. Schwarzenegger lives in rarified air -- an American politician the world knows on a first-name basis. That said, his sky has a ceiling. Term limits will force him to step down in 2011, and the Constitution stands in the way of a presidential run.

That leaves the U.S. Senate as an alternative. Some option. Watch five minutes of C-SPAN2 and you'll understand why that chamber's deliberative style is an awkward fit for a thrill-seeking executive such as Schwarzenegger.

So, time is running out on the governor's political career. And that might explain why his second term is off to such a fast start. It also may explain what kind of politician he truly is.

Will Schwarzenegger get his way on the healthcare front? That largely depends on his interpersonal skills, beginning with his ability to offer lawmakers the right mix of carrots and sticks to keep the reform effort on a steady course.

Those talents were missing two years ago when the governor and Legislature couldn't work out a deal that would have spared California a special election.

If that history repeats itself, healthcare reform could collapse under its own weight -- or, worse for California, emerge from the Legislature as a "Franken-fix," a last-minute, slapdash job certain to haunt the next governor.

Schwarzenegger will need the same people skills to repair another fracture on his right -- his deteriorating relationship with the legislative wing of the Republican Party. Right now, that relationship is headed from critical condition to "do not resuscitate."

LEGISLATIVE Republicans have every reason to gripe. The governor's most notable "conservative" accomplishments are defensive in nature: He hasn't raised taxes (now debatable, depending on how one interprets the revenue provisions of his universal healthcare plan); he hasn't signed a same-sex marriage law; and he refuses to provide driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. Also, to date, Schwarzenegger's post-partisanship style has consisted almost entirely of him moving left of center and Democratic legislators leaning a little to the right.

There is an underlying irony to his conflict with conservative Republicans. Probably the most appealing idea in the governor's new budget to GOP lawmakers is cutting welfare benefits to encourage recipients to enter the workforce. But the Republicans suffer from a different form of dependency -- the urge to whine and complain instead of offering concrete ideas to move forward. Maybe it's what comes from being a political underclass. But it's not productive. And it won't work with an optimist like the governor.

Still, is Schwarzenegger truly a Republican when his ideas aren't well received by party regulars? It's a fair question. And it's worth remembering that Hiram Johnson, the great reformer and Schwarzenegger's first gubernatorial role model, started out as a Republican governor before joining Theodore Roosevelt and the "Bull Moose" Progressive Party after only two years in Sacramento.

Our nonconformist governor may be best described as a "utopian." Schwarzenegger aspires to a pristine environment, economic progress across class lines and healthcare for all. His basis for action is a kind of "political transcendentalism" -- a personal belief that within California's political system there exists a spiritual desire that outweighs the worst of partisan urges. Healthcare reform will put that faith to its strongest test.

No one is going to confuse our crowd-loving, glamour-seeking governor with the stark isolation of a 19th century transcendentalist such as Henry David Thoreau -- Sun Valley and Walden Pond have little in common.

But it's the latter's writing that strikes a chord. "If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined," Thoreau observed, "he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours."

Time will tell if the uncommon politician finds expected success in his next four years.

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