Arnold screwed up. That’s the bottom line. He bungled the chance he was given this year to move California in the right direction. The most important issue on the special election ballot was the redistricting initiative.
California is stuck with a dysfunctional state government. The Legislature is a complete failure and is incapable of dealing with the massive problems that face California. This is so because of the cynical redistricting that took place after the 2000 census. Both parties are guilty of the sin of assassinating competitive democracy in California. Both parties wanted this deal—for the Democrats it was a chance to cement their numerical advantage in both the state Legislature and among the California congressional delegation. For the GOP, it was a chance to keep the seats they had and provide some kind of stability in the midst of a very blue state. The problems that this has caused are obvious. Election contests for the state Assembly and the state Senate are simply not competitive. Not a single seat in either body turned over at the last general election. What this means is that in a democratic district, for instance, the Democrats can’t lose. Therefore, who dominates the process of choosing and electing state Assembly members? The extreme groups of the democratic base, that’s who, the special interest groups, the identity politics groups, the public employee unions, etc. These groups are mainly interested in more funding for their members or narrow legislative action not in the common welfare. The same is true on the Republican side. The result of all this is to elect a Legislature that is made up of members that represent the most extreme elements of each party’s base. This is why the Legislature is so polarized. This is why there is no bipartisan cooperation in Sacramento. This is why the Legislature is far, far more liberal than the general voting public of California.
The governor needed to focus his “Year of Reform” on this problem like a laser beam. He could have put his energy into one important issue and shown voters that it was not a partisan issue but a campaign on behalf of all voters and all citizens for better government in California. Instead, he wasted time, his staff was lax in organizing his campaign and he allowed himself to sidetracked and distracted by the various other issues that he decided to add to the special election that didn’t need to be there. Yes, it is important to get a handle on the teachers union as a first step to improving the schools, but not now, not when getting this powerful interest group inflamed will distract the voters and dog his campaign for months. Yes, it is probably important to get a handle on the budget problem by giving the governor more power over spending, but it is a distraction from the basic problem of a Legislature that doesn’t work. Obviously, he couldn’t even convince Maria, who evidently had enough doubts about strategy that she refused to campaign with him even though she was needed desperately.
I can only conclude that Arnold does not have the necessary political skills to solve the very difficult problems facing California. He had a chance, but he bungled it. He may not get another chance and California just can’t wait. This presents a problem for conservatives and for all of California—should Arnold be reelected next year? The state Assembly is so dysfunctional and so far to the left of the general voting public that it is overwhelmingly important to have a Republican governor who can ride herd on the worst tendencies of the Assembly Democrats. Should a Democrat be elected governor—watch out—it will be a case of Gray Davis redux, and the monkeys will be running the zoo, again! On the other hand, we need someone who can lead a reform effort and if Arnold is not that person, who is? Maybe California will have to suffer through another crisis like blackouts or a Gray Davis-style collapse to get the reform rolling.
Alan Christie Swain holds a master’s degree in international affairs from Columbia University..