Schwarzenegger looks set for second term
The moment came towards the end of the uncompromisingly boring debate between Arnold Schwarzenegger, the governor, and the Democrat challenger, Phil Angelides. Schwarzenegger, in the only televised debate of this election, had just listened to a lengthy answer from the challenger about some obscure point of policy.
“I feel a bit like I’m having dinner with Uncle Teddy at Thanksgiving,” said the former movie star.
The audience hooted.
This was Arnold, their Arnold, being cheeky and charming, poking fun at himself, at America, at the political process. And this was Arnold doing what he does best: selling Arnold.
The line about good old “Uncle Teddy” reminded the state’s 16-million voters, in case they had forgotten, of all they needed to know about their governor: the nation’s most favoured immigrant sups at the table of the Kennedys, the nearest the US has to a royal family. And here was Schwarzenegger poking fun at Uncle Teddy—Senator Edward Kennedy. Arnold, he was telling us, can cut through all the old politics stuff; he is his own man, a politician unlike others.
The voters seem to be impressed. Most polls agree Schwarzenegger has a lead of at least nine points. Some put it much higher, prompting reports that Democrats are in despair. How could it have come to this? A state where 43% of registered voters describe themselves as Democrats while just 34% are Republicans has turned into a Republican shoo-in.
Part of the answer lies in the governor’s much-vaunted bipartisanship, his professed keenness to work across party lines and do what is best for the state. “I think the Democrat with the funny accent won the debate,” said Rob Long, author of Conversations With My Agent and scripts for the TV show Cheers, and also a friend of the governor.
Schwarzenegger, much to the consternation of Democrats, has been adept at stealing the best lines from the centre.
“He’s been three different governors,” said John Burton, a Democrat who retired last year as speaker of the state Senate and who had a topsy-turvy relationship with Schwarzenegger. In his first year, said Burton, the governor played the bipartisan moderate, seeking compromise not confrontation.
“But last year,” he said, “he took a hard-right turn and the people rejected that kind of confrontational politics. This year he’s become more conciliatory and passed bills that he wouldn’t have passed before. In an election year everybody tries to work things out.”
Schwarzenegger signing Bills has become the symbol of what has been a lacklustre campaign. The environment, education, prison reform, port security, California’s troubled levee system—each day has produced a new photo op for the Republican governor to burnish his liberal credentials and protect himself from the only stick the Democrats have to beat him with—US President George Bush.
Again, Schwarzenegger used a TV appearance—this time on Jay Leno’s late-night show—to defuse attempts to link him with the president. “Trying to link me with George Bush is like trying to link me with an Oscar,” he said.
The Democrats, too, have helped him. Their candidate, Angelides, who is the state treasurer, came into the race with all the handicaps any politician would have running against the perfect storm that is Schwarzenegger: low name recognition, the need to pay for media time rather than simply calling up a chat show. But then he added more; he emerged from a bruising and expensive primary campaign, his money spent and his vulnerabilities exposed to voters by another Democrat.
“Angelides is just another party hack,” says Gary Indiana, author of The Schwarzenegger Syndrome: Politics and Celebrity in the Age of Contempt. “And he has the charisma of a biology teacher. In American politics, for good or bad, you have to have something going on.”
Indiana, whose book was scathing about Schwarzenegger and the recall campaign, has in part changed his mind about the governor. “He’s made a much better governor than anyone thought he could. The positive thing about Arnold Schwarzenegger is that he’s a movie star and people pay attention to movie stars. He has at least tried to improve some things that he cares about. I’m not saying he’s solved them but at least he’s working on them. He’s proven to be a better person than I thought he was.”
Which leaves Democrats hoping for one of two things: an unprecedented cock-up by Schwarzenegger, or—less likely—an appearance by Bush to repay the governor for stumping for him in Ohio in 2004.
“Arnold had been very careful, very measured,” says Burton, “but he does know how to step on his own dick. If they catch him with a two-year-old puppy or something ...”
Last week at a school in Bakersfield, in the heat of California’s central valley, midway between Los Angeles and the state capital, Sacramento, the governor had the look of a stately ocean liner not even the fiercest hurricane could blow off course. His skin is a little less orange than a year ago, his hair a little more natural in colour, and he has the fixed grin, perched somewhere between shock and awe, of the institutionally bored. His large head, long body and short legs give the impression of something knocked up in a lab. The flashy rings, absent for the electoral debate, had returned and, as ever, he was wearing cowboy boots. He gave his standard stump speech to the 150 children present, a spiel that has not varied since he announced he was running for governor three years ago.
Schwarzenegger always talks of growing up in Austria, of living the American dream, of success, empowerment, inner strength and self-discipline. The lessons could be equally applied to a bodybuilder, movie star or politician. And he always rounds off his speeches with a reference to his film persona. “Keep up the great work and ... I’ll be back,” he tells the children, who dutifully break into whoops as they swarm around him to get an autograph. But is it enough?
“I think this is the end game,” says Indiana. “He may actually have wanted to be governor just to prove he could be governor. I’m not sure that his political ambitions run any further than that. All he’s done all his life is win, but politics in this country is so sorted and tangled.”
But Long senses Schwarzenegger’s political career may not end with the governorship. “He’s an ambitious guy. He could be president, probably. Maybe he wants to be senator. Traditionally a successful governor of California runs for president. For the Democrats to win the presidency they must win California. So a popular Republican governor of California is a very important person. November is very important.” - Guardian Unlimited Â