What happened to the first Arnold?

California, so often the trendsetter for the rest of the country, could have done America a favor and passed Proposition 77 Tuesday. The measure, backed by the governor, would have taken the job of drawing voting districts out of the hands of vested-interest state legislators and given it to a panel of judges - a move toward greater impartiality and more competitive elections.

Unfortunately, Californians rejected Prop. 77, and voters in Ohio also passed up a similar opportunity relating to voter districts. That's too bad because lack of political competition leads to entrenchment.

In 2004, for instance, incumbents in the US House of Representatives had their best year ever. And in California, not one seat in the state legislature changed party hands.

Yet, in a more indirect way, California redeemed itself Tuesday by sending a message across the country that can't be repeated often enough: Bipartisanship matters.

Individually, voters' quadruple rejection of all four of the ballot initiatives pushed by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger amounts to a "no" to his specific ideas about government reform - from redistricting, to teacher tenure, to who should control the state's purse strings.

But collectively, Californians appear to be pleading with the governor to return to his consensus-building message of 2003, when he replaced Democratic Gov. Gray Davis in an unusual recall election with a problem-solving promise to clean up the state's severe financial mess.

At that time, Mr. Schwarzenegger seemed well aware that California is a blue state that votes largely Democratic. His was a centrist approach. Working with the Democratic legislature and with powerful lobbies such as the state's educators, he hammered out a short-term, yet impressive, solution to California's budget crisis. He even came to an agreement on such major issues as overhauling the state's workers' compensation system. For this teamwork, he was rewarded with high job approval ratings.

But the bipartisanship was short-lived, as were his high ratings. The 2004 campaign season reared its head and Schwarzenegger was caught up in the presidential election, speaking at the GOP convention and campaigning for President Bush in Ohio. Not that there's anything wrong with that, except it cut against the grain of his own state, where Mr. Bush was not popular.

The governor then struck a particularly partisan tone in his State of the State message, and this year, when he couldn't get the legislature to do what he wanted, he went around it by calling Tuesday's special election (the most expensive in California's history). He bluntly criticized the very groups with whom he had worked, calling Democratic legislators "girlie men" on spending. About public employee unions, he boasted: "I am always kicking their butts." Not exactly the way to win over nurses, firefighters, and teachers - or convince voters of sound measures such as Prop. 77.

On Tuesday night, the governor admitted, "I recognize we also need more bipartisan cooperation." A lesson learned late, but hopefully, one that was really learned.

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