Arnold escapes from his 2005 defeat – and comes back as a new kind of Governor

by Tony Quinn
Feb. 5, 2006
They say that when news of the battle of Gettysburg reached President Lincoln in 1863 he was furious. The Union had won the battle all right, but the Confederate army under General Lee had escaped. Lincoln well understood that allowing Lee to escape had greatly undermined the Union victory.

It’s not exactly the same with Gov. Schwarzenegger but the point is relevant. He declared war on public employee unions and the Democrats in 2005, and they responded by giving him a thrashing at the polls. All the intensity in the 2005 special election ended up going against Schwarzenegger.

The voters vented their unhappiness with the governor; Democrats turned out legions of election day walkers to sink him. But for all this sound the fury at the ballot box, in the three months since the election, his adversaries have been eerily quiet. In effect, Arnold has escaped from his beating at the polls, and has quickly reinvigorated himself to fight another day.

The reconstructed Arnold is far less partisan than the GOP warrior of 2005. He has reconstituted his staff and brought in a new political team. Republican governors tend to run their re-election efforts out of the governor’s office and Schwarzenegger will be no different.

Interestingly, two of his top appointees, chief of staff Susan Kennedy and Maria Shriver’s chief of staff Daniel Zingale, are veterans of the administration of former Gov. Gray Davis. They were in that administration when Davis ran for re-election in 2002, so they know how a governor’s race is won.

They are also the only people close to Schwarzenegger with recent experience in California politics. Schwarzenegger has gotten rid of his 2005 political strategist, Michael Murphy, and brought in new strategists with backgrounds in the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign but no recent activity in California. So it doesn’t take much to deduce that Kennedy and Zingale will end up as the real architects of Schwarzenegger’s re-election effort.

That is certainly apparent in the policy goals Schwarzenegger is advancing in 2006, primarily his massive plan to rebuild the state’s infrastructure. Political consultants will tell you that building schools and roads does not excite the voters, but they miss an important point. Proposals like this appeal to independent voters because they do not have a partisan edge to them.

Independents heavily backed Schwarzenegger in the recall but abandoned him in droves in the 2005 special election. Every time Democrats, or his fellow Republicans, criticize Schwarzenegger’s infrastructure bond it actually helps him with independents, and winning back independents is key to his re-election.

By embracing a huge infrastructure bond in an election year Schwarzenegger is actually harkening back to a tried and true formula for political success, especially among Republican governors. Although he is largely forgotten today, Nelson Rockefeller was a giant among American governors 40 years ago.

Rockefeller was a Republican elected four times as governor of Democratic New York, starting in 1958. In his last two campaigns, “Rocky”, as everyone called him, started out well behind. But each time he championed huge new spending programs, and literally outbid his Democratic opponents. Rocky built New York state as we know it today.

People like to compare Schwarzenegger’s big project dreams to the “Golden Era” governors like Earl Warren and Pat Brown when the California we know today was built with miles of concrete and canals. But that was in a far different era.

Perhaps a better comparison is with Rocky, like Arnold, a Republican governor in a Democratic state who regularly won election by out promising his opponents. Schwarzenegger has shown a remarkable ability to pivot on a dime in his great escape from the disasters of 2005. So why not present himself as the New Rocky, a pour the concrete, build the projects kind of governor who regularly left his opponents in the dust.

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