Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has one year left to improve his legacy before… (Ezra Shaw / Getty Images )
From Sacramento — If I were forced to describe the reign of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in one word, that word would be "disappointing."
It began six years ago with missed opportunities and squandered superstardom. And it soon degenerated into plummeting popularity at a special election he called for flawed partisan "reforms."
He bounced back with a bipartisan $37-billion infrastructure bond package, an attention-getting assault on global warming and an easy reelection victory.
But then he swung for the stars on healthcare reform and struck out. He promised education reform and never got around to it.
Along the way, he did retool the costly workers' compensation program. And he helped pass a landmark ballot measure that will place the next legislative redistricting in the hands of an independent commission, denying lawmakers the power to rig their own elections.
But the "action hero" who rode into office vowing to "end the crazy deficit spending" and "tear up the credit card" wound up presiding over deeper deficits and greater debt than his recalled predecessor, Democrat Gray Davis, ever could have imagined.
Blame the global recession for the deficit's severity. Fault two-thirds legislative vote requirements and ideological rigidity for the gridlock. Condemn a volatile tax structure that exaggerates economic good and bad times, plus lack of any meaningful spending cap or rainy day fund.
But Schwarzenegger contributed heavily to the fiscal mess by cutting taxes while borrowing on the credit card to pay for daily expenses.
OK, all that's history. There's still a final chapter to be written. He has one year left before being booted out by term limits -- one more year to salvage his legacy.
So Schwarzenegger has been soliciting advice about what he should focus on in 2010. What's needed? What's doable? What should he talk about in his final State of the State address the first week in January?
The governor, whose record-low poll ratings are in the Davis range, has been asking not only trusted aides, but also outside politicos, professors and pundits.
He hasn't invited me to participate, but since gate-crashing is in vogue, I'll offer my two-bits worth anyway.
In a word, I'd suggest keeping it simple.
Don't confuse voters, as Capitol politicians inadvertently did at last May's ill-fated special election on proposed budget fixes. Have a clear, logical message that holds up.
Focus on two or three attainable goals. No more bold adventures.
Many things are needed. But only a few are realistically doable in an election year when the voters are grumpy, the Legislature is polarized and the governor's a lame duck.
The time when Schwarzenegger could lead by the force of his personality, and the people would follow compliantly, is long gone. That said, he still has a louder mike than any other California politician.
And to use a golf analogy, Schwarzenegger already has two balls teed up: an open primary measure for the June ballot, and an $11.1-billion water bond issue for November. He needs to concentrate, swing smoothly and follow through, keeping his eye off distractions.
The follow-through is crucial because although he has celebrated these measures' passage by the Legislature, unless they're also approved by voters, nothing will have been accomplished. Schwarzenegger's efforts will have failed.
Under the open primary, there would be only one primary and it would be open to all voters. The top two vote-getters, regardless of party, would advance to the general election. The idea is to force candidates to appeal to a wider spectrum of voters than they now do in party primaries, resulting in the election of more pragmatic moderates.
The political parties will fight fiercely to protect the partisan status quo. But if Schwarzenegger can help get an open primary passed, he could pair it with his redistricting victory to claim an impressive trophy for political reform.
"He needs to be pretty vocal and raise as much money as he can," says Bill Hauck, president of the California Business Roundtable and former advisor to politicians of both parties. An open primary combined with redistricting reform, Hauck says, "can have significant benefits by moving the Legislature to less ideological rigidity."
The second ballot measure that Schwarzenegger must help pass offers the first major bond for state water facilities in 50 years. But this ballot prop needs to be sent back to the Legislature and pared of pork.
There's not much pork, but there's too much to pass the voters' smell test in a year when Sacramento is bound to be whacking schools, eliminating healthcare, closing parks and releasing prisoners. As the state faces another huge budget deficit -- $21 billion at last count -- borrowing for bike trails, open space and "watershed education centers" just may seem nutty to most voters.