The Allure of Blockbuster Democracy

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The New York Sun

The story of how Californians recalled their governor in 2003 and replaced him with Arnold Schwarzenegger and the state’s roller-coaster dips and turns since then make for a great read. But there is another reason for non-Californians to be familiar with that history: So many political trends are born in the Golden State. Among them is the merger of lawmaking with the celebrity style that Governor Schwarzenegger embodies. In an age of infotainment, that combination is likely to only grow in influence.

Joe Mathews, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, has set out in “The People’s Machine” (PublicAffairs, 453 pages, $26.95) to tell the story of Mr. Schwarzenegger’s rise to power in the context of the direct democracy that made it possible. There was no way a Hollywood action hero could have vaulted from doing public relations for “Terminator 3” to being sworn in as governor in less than four months without California’s recall law — which allowed voters to express no confidence in Governor Gray Davis and, at the same time, select Mr. Schwarzenegger from a zoo animal-like list of 135 candidates.

Empowered by direct democracy, the new governor soon returned to it. Frustrated by a liberal Legislature, he again went to the people last November, proposing a series of four reform ballot measures. Saddled with a poor campaign and savaged by public employee unions who spent $130 million in attack ads, the governor’s measures all failed. But the popularity of governance by ballot box lives on.This fall, Mr. Schwarzenegger is touting massive bond measures to rebuild California’s roads and levees. Even his Democratic opponent, Phil Angelides, says that if he’s elected and the Legislature won’t go along with his big spending plans he will turn them into initiatives and go to the people. Getting action, Mr. Angelides says, is a “moral imperative.”

Hobbled by legislatures that are often gridlocked or tied down by special interests, more and more people see direct democracy as a moral imperative. The 26 states with direct voter approval of laws are setting records on the number of measures reaching the ballot. If Mr. Schwarzenegger had succeeded in passing his reform agenda, he was openly speculating about expanding direct democracy to the national level. It is “something to study,” Mr. Schwarzenegger told Mr. Mathews. Mr. Schwarzenegger noted that the number of countries that allow citizens to vote directly on laws has doubled in the last decade. New club members include Norway, Taiwan, New Zealand, and Ecuador.

But the heart of Mr. Mathews’s book isn’t a civics lecture. It is the rollicking, wild story of how an Austrian carpenter’s apprentice rose to become leader of his adopted land’s largest state, and how to some extent he has become merely life-size since then.

The story begins in a TV studio green room in 1979 where, by accident, the young bodybuilder spent an electrifying hour with Howard Jarvis, the taxpayer advocate who had passed California’s Proposition 13 the year before. “Jarvis, for better or worse, had just touched off a new era of politics. A quarter century later, Schwarzenegger would do the same,” Mr. Mathews writes. “In California’s emerging blockbuster democracy, it was the closest thing to a passing of the torch.” From then on, the emerging movie star had a future political career in the back of his mind.

His moment came after Mr. Davis narrowly won re-election in 2002 and the state quickly plunged into a fiscal crisis.Ted Costa, who headed an anti-tax group that had grown out of Jarvis’s Proposition 13, teamed up with Shawn Steel, a retiring head of the state Republican Party, to propose a recall.Once the recall had qualified for the ballot in July 2003, Mr. Schwarzenegger craftily waited for a popular Democratic senator, Dianne Feinstein, to announce that she wasn’t going to run before announcing his own candidacy that evening on Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show”— without telling anyone other than his wife, Maria Shriver. In the ensuing two months, Californians were treated to a political drama worthy of a Hollywood thriller. Mr. Schwarzenegger was elected in a landslide.

But the seeds of his future failures were planted in his first weeks in office. A novice at politics, Mr. Schwarzenegger sent mixed signals in pressing his demand that the state budget be permanently repaired with a cap on spending so it would only increase at the rate of population growth and inflation. At first the governor vowed to take his spending cap proposal to the voters, but then his wife convinced him to strike a deal with Democratic legislators for a largely meaningless balanced budget law instead. “With a budget deficit providing an opportunity for government retrenchment of which his theoretical heroes (such as Milton Friedman) could only dream, Schwarzenegger couldn’t pull the trigger,” Mr. Mathews writes.

When the action governor blinked in his confrontation with Democratic leaders Mr. Mathews reports, “it sent a message that would hurt his ability to govern. Democrats saw that Schwarzenegger would back down if he was challenged. Schwarzenegger, used to being loved, simply didn’t have the political pain tolerance for serious cuts.” Today, that observation works equally well as an indictment of President Bush and the current GOP Congress.

Mr. Schwarzenegger’s blinking indeed had consequences. By the time the governor woke up to the fact that he could only change California by confronting liberal spending interests, he had lost the recall’s momentum and did not have the club of a hard spending cap to hold over legislators and force change. When he took a package of flawed and watered-down ballot measures to the people, he called his union-backed opponents “girlie-men,” but in the end they were the ones who taught him who had the upper hand in California.

In the end, Mr. Mathews tells a cautionary tale. Arnold Schwarzenegger, one of the most disciplined, focused, and optimistic people on the planet, dreams of achieving great office and returning power to the people. Through force of will he dramatically succeeds in his first goal, and then, because of an unwillingness to risk popular disapproval, he stumbles in achieving his second. But the allure of blockbuster democracy is such that you can bet he or another celebrity figure will try again to propel the concept into the forefront of American politics.

Mr. Fund is a columnist for the Wall Street Journal and the author of “Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy,” available from Encounter Books.

The New York Sun

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