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Schwarzenegger, in first year of office, solidifies moderate image

In reviewing 844 bills this session, he's angered both parties at times. But he's also gone with public sentiment.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 30, 2004



OAKLAND, CALIF.

During last year's recall campaign, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger sketched an image of himself as that rarest of political breeds - a moderate. During the past few weeks, he has set about carving that image into a concrete reality.

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Seeking to test a first-year Republican governor who had spoken about policy in only the broadest generalizations, the state Legislature sent Mr. Schwarzenegger 844 bills this session on issues ranging from gay rights to electricity deregulation. Although he has until Thursday night to sign or veto the last of the bills, the pattern is already clear as he has confounded both parties in almost equal measure.

To Democrats, he has been the hardheaded crusader for big business, vetoing a minimum-wage hike and steering clear of anything with the scent of progressive economics. Yet to Republicans, he's been a conservative turncoat, signing bills that support gun control and the environment.

Part of it, surely, is Schwarzenegger the populist, playing to the peculiar preferences of the voters in his state. But there also appears to be something earnest in his policy, say politicians and political scientists, as he attempts to find a middle path though a state where partisan divides are sharp and deep. "We've become so accustomed to looking at politics as a great divide that a lot of us are a little bewildered when we confront someone who doesn't fit the stereotypes," says Tim Hodson, a political scientist at the California State University in Sacramento. "What we're dealing with is a moderate."

A business persona

Not that Schwarzenegger defies all attempts at categorization. From the beginning of the recall campaign, he has presented himself as a businessman, and his recent decisions have only added to that persona.

Although there were a few major business issues yet to be resolved as of Wednesday morning - including a bill on importing drugs from Canada and a suite of bills that would prohibit the state from outsourcing any government jobs overseas - Schwarzenegger has tilted toward the business community on almost all the legislation he has signed or vetoed.

The prime example is his veto of a bill that would have raised the state minimum wage by $1 an hour, but he also vetoed bills to put further regulations on industries from big-box stores to metal-plating facilities.

"Arnold's real connection to the Republican Party is on business-friendly issues," says Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California in Berkeley.

Beyond that, however, he has frequently followed his own script. For example, he signed a bill that forced insurance companies to offer gay couples the same benefits they offer to unmarried heterosexual couples. He agreed to ban a particular type of high-powered rifle. And he signed a bill that increased access to clean hypodermic needles to slow the spread of AIDS.

Yet the clearest area of departure from current Republican doctrine has been his support for environmental issues. Not that he is about to trade in his cigars for granola and take up residence in a threatened sequoia tree, but he did sign a raft of bills that limited cruise-ship pollution and set up a 25-million acre nature conservancy in the Sierra Nevada, among other things.

"He's gotten off to a very promising start," says Ann Notthoff of the National Resources Defense Council in San Francisco.

There's little question that legislators had hoped to pin down Schwarzenegger by barraging him with legislation on virtually every subject. For the most part, he has obliged. "Some of the bills were given to him to try to force him to make difficult choices," says Democratic Assemblyman Joseph Canciamilla. "I don't always agree with him, but he has made sound decisions."

Through his decisions, he has begun to stake out a position similar to that of successful Northeast Republicans: conservative on economic issues and moderate to liberal on social issues. So far, it has served him well, with opinion polls showing his approval rating above 60 percent.

Heeding the voice of the people

A part of that success, however, has also come through his populist image - the idea that he respects the voice of the people. When he vetoed a bill that would have allowed illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses, the sense among analysts was that he was deferring to the masses.

"In the face of overwhelming public sentiment, he's going to go with overwhelming public sentiment," says Professor Cain. "You're not going to see him do a Gavin Newsom" and get way out in front of public opinion on social issues, as the San Francisco mayor did in issuing marriage licenses to gay couples.

Yet with tough budget decisions looming next year, as well as the issue of what to do with electricity markets after the deregulation catastrophe, some wonder if he will plow ahead when the public is divided or even against him.

Says Cain: "There's a remaining question about how he's going to proceed when the public mandate isn't clear."

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