Sunday, October 25, 2009

Exit Stage Right for Schwarzenegger

Often times, the public views lame-duck executives with a good deal of skepticism and brusqueness. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is no exception. With a 27% approval rating to boot, some political pundits are already beginning to speak of the Schwarzenegger administration as if it were already over. This blog posting will explore whether the Governator’s ability to be effective in this state has truly eroded, and what he can do to make a lasting legacy a reality in coming terms.

One of the least popular governors in California’s history, Schwarzenegger has had a rough time making friends. His relationships with the majority party Democrats have been blighted from their inception, and his ability to construct meaningful connections with Republicans is becoming worse by the day. He is under constant attack from PACs and special interests on both sides of the aisle. The governor’s power to pass important legislation is compromised by a dislike and distrust of the administration by stakeholders across the state.

With 14 months left in his term, prospects are grim for Schwarzenegger’s political capital, but his ability to improve his image and leave a meaningful mark on California history is all but lost. The Governor has no shortage of opportunities to make lasting changes in his policy agenda, especially in areas such as public infrastructure, prison reform, the environment and education. Politically, his naturalized citizen status presents no threat to other state legislators seeking an eventual Presidential bid. There is no reason why Schwarzenegger should accept the classic implications that lame duck status means relinquishing all power in the months prior to the official transition of power.

Known for his commitment to investing in public infrastructure, a bipartisan consensus on the massive investment in the state’s water supply infrastructure would be among the most substantial feathers in Schwarzenegger’s cap. Schwarzenegger says that his office and the legislature are on the cusp of approving a historic water deal that would ensure the state's water supply into the next century while both restoring and preserving the fragile Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Two-thirds majorities will be needed in both houses of the Legislature to place bond measures on the ballot to finance the plan. A water deal would also erase some of the bitterness over this year's budget battles and lay the groundwork for more bipartisan work next year. But if the water deal falls apart, it could be the exact writing on the wall that suggests rocky waters for the legislative year in 2010.

Schwarzenegger has also made significant inroads in reaching a consensus in the area of prison reform. Although a bill that was supported by both Schwarzenegger and the State Senate was ultimately rejected by the house, Schwarzenegger is still trying to meet a court order to reduce the state's prison population, and this is an issue which will require him to meet the opposition halfway.

With the state budget still in disarray, and his tendency to spend time with his family in Santa Monica, many in the Capitol are speculating that the governor will lose interest in the job and let his priorities drift. Schwarzenegger’s chief of staff, Susan Kennedy, is convinced her boss will remain committed until the end. Kennedy speculates, "He's the only politician I would ever consider staying for until the very end," Kennedy told me last week. "He's genetically incapable of slowing down."

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