Action-hero governor in retreat lately

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Year of Reform" is fast becoming a year of retreat.

What began in January as an outsized agenda - encompassing a range of issues as arcane as redistricting and as controversial as merit pay for teachers - has steadily shrunk as a chastened governor is set back on his heels, stung by his own missteps and an increasingly emboldened opposition.

Already, he has abandoned an initiative to privatize the state's pension system, as well as promises to drastically cut the bureaucracy in Sacramento. Now, he appears to be considering a plan to drop the merit-pay measure. Add in a few ill-conceived comments antagonizing immigrants and nurses, and Governor Schwarzenegger has reached a low point of his administration.

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Clearly, Schwarzenegger's troubles are part of a steep learning curve, as California's free-wheeling action-hero-turned-governor learns the lesson that has served the Bush White House so well: clear organization and lock-step discipline. Yet Schwarzenegger's inability to outmaneuver an extremely unpopular Legislature also serves as an object lesson for 21st-century American politics: The coveted role of political outsider is not one of improvisation only, but also of close study.

Schwarzenegger overreached in his bid to recast California, most analysts agree, relying more on image and momentum to carry his agenda than time-tested political calculation. Now, he must find a way to work with a Legislature he has so often derided - all while maintaining his maverick persona - or risk tumbling into the realm of political novelty.

"It is a time of regrouping," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. "The reality is that he is not going to be able to accomplish everything he set out to do at the beginning of the year."

The slate of reforms he laid out in January's State of the State address was startling in its ambition. Schwarzenegger threatened to target some of the most powerful political forces in the state through ballot initiatives on redistricting reform, merit pay, privatizing pensions, and capping state spending. On top of this, he vowed to weed out the state's 88 boards and commissions for budget savings.

This year was to be a test of the governor's political ability. Throughout his first year on the job, Schwarzenegger succeeded largely by focusing on one issue at a time. Now it seems he has spread himself too thin.

While each of his issues is of crucial importance to the state and its well-being, none has excited much voter interest. By contrast, each has animated an influential and well-funded opposition, from the California teachers' union to state troopers worried about their pensions. In fact, when unions contended that Schwarzenegger's pension reforms would endanger death and disability benefits, the outcry from police officers and firefighters led Schwarzenegger to drop the plan.

Moreover, his off-the-cuff comments have made enemies. Late last year, he dismissed a group of nurses protesting reductions in nurse-patient ratios as "special interests" who don't like him because "I am always kicking their butts" - setting off an anti-Arnold lobbying campaign that is still echoing across the airwaves. Then, last week, he said the federal government should "close the borders in California, and all across Mexico and the United States." He later said he meant to say "secure the borders," but in a heavily immigrant state, the damage was done.

Much of his current plight comes from a "rush to the ballot that was very poorly thought out," says Tony Quinn, coeditor of the California Target Book. "Policy is being driven by the political agenda and not the other way around."

The problem with the pension initiative, he and others say, was that it was poorly worded because it was written quickly. Indeed, in the haste to get these initiatives qualified for a special election this fall - a process that includes gathering some 600,000 signatures - the administration has ignored a number of rules in the basic political playbook, like building support.

"Firefighters, police, and university employees were all against [the pension plan]," says Mr. Quinn. "The administration should have talked to them [first]."

Schwarzenegger's bid to rein in state bureaucracy met with similar public ambivalence before he abandoned it in February, and with the drive for merit pay flagging, the governor is backing a compromise plan that would give teachers a bonus for working in underachieving schools - suggesting he might be ready to drop the merit pay initiative entirely.

The result could be a special election that focuses only on Schwarzenegger's core reforms: redistricting and a spending cap. Or it could be a prelude to further retreat, as Schwarzenegger continues a pattern of backing off hard-line rhetoric.

Either way, analysts say Schwarzenegger must take the political lessons he has learned this year and apply them to this year's budget process and the rest of his term. "He's at a turning point," says Larry Gerston, a political scientist at San Jose State University. "If he [cooperates with the Legislature] I have every reason to believe he can work things out, but if he insists on calling people names ... it's going to be a very difficult year and a half."

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