Tremor in Arnold's political brawn

The California governor gets bogged down in traditional political wrangling over state budget.

California's political superhero, it turns out, is fallible after all. For the better part of eight months, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had sliced though Sacramento with an action star's aplomb, bringing together a cantankerous legislature seemingly by the force of his own power and personality.

That invincibility, however, has disappeared. The same foe that eventually relegated Gov. Gray Davis to the ignominy of recall - the state budget - has now dented the political fortunes of his successor.

In recent weeks, Mr. Schwarzenegger has been cast both as the despot and the weakling, at times denunciating Democrats as "girlie men" and at others appearing rudderless. Seeking compromise in the tempest of budget politics, lawmakers say, he has instead been tossed between the extremes.

To many, it is simply a symptom of his inexperience and the difficulty of the task, and for that reason, even his critics remain charitable. Yet for the first time since taking office, Schwarzenegger is clearly vulnerable, and his plight echoes beyond this deeply divided state, which spans Republicans as homespun as any in the deep South and Democrats as left as any Massachusetts liberal. It is America's political spectrum in miniature, and it bespeaks the potential perils of bipartisanship in an increasingly polarized nation.

"He's not as untouchable as before," says Joseph Canciamilla, a Democratic member of the state Assembly. "We're going to see his authority challenged more."

Three months ago, that seemed unlikely. After signing a bipartisan bill to fix California's multibillion dollar worker's compensation system, he was a political colossus in Sacramento. In a masterstroke, he had even begun the process behind the backs of the legislators - persuading the state's largest teacher's union to support a $2 billion deferral in state education payments.

This was to be his grandest success yet: a balanced budget, signed on time.

Today, the budget involves little serious reform, and it has yet to be signed even though it is three weeks late. Indications suggest the sides are nearing a deal on one of the key roadblocks. But the path from April to now has been a story of miscalculations and missed opportunities, say lawmakers and political scientists.

His decision to rail against Democrats last week at a rally and call them "girlie men" for not backing his budget priorities was just the latest example - and a clear sign of frustration. By brokering the behind-the-scenes deal with the California Teacher's Association - and then doing the same thing with several other key interest groups - Schwarzenegger had appeared to be paving the way to a budget.

In reality, the opposite occurred. Among legislators, both Republican and Democrat, the subject stings. "Up until the point that he cut those outside deals, we had a good working relationship with him," says Democratic state Sen. Sheila Kuehl. "Then it became difficult for him to come to us and say, 'Here's the deal: Rubber-stamp it.' "

The deals deprived Republicans the opportunity to push for further cuts. They were a sign of disrespect to Democrats. And to all, they pointed to a budding Napoleon Complex. "Arnold has made some mistakes overestimating his power and underestimating the Legislature," says Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley.

The process began to break down despite Schwarzenegger attempts at triage. When the Legislature amended one deal he made with city and county authorities, he appeared to switch his position to support the Legislature, then partially switched back when local officials cried foul.

At the same time, Republicans became increasingly restless about the lack of cuts, claiming that Schwarzenegger was caving into Democratic demands.

Schwarzenegger responded by pinning the budget negotiations on two relatively minor issues important to Republicans - public schools' ability to contract private companies and limiting certain employees' rights to sue their bosses. Democrats deemed these tangential to the budget process, and claimed Schwarzenegger was pandering to his base.

In the world of state budgets, such politics are as common as comb-overs and blue suits. What's significant is the perception that Schwarzenegger hasn't been in control.

"He's not drawing a clear line and saying, 'This is what I want from the budget process,'" says Assemblyman Canciamilla. "From his view, he's trying to cooperate. From our side, it's viewed as retreating from your basic position."

Last weekend's "girlie man" comment was an attempt to reclaim some kind of command in the way he knows best: taking the fight to the people. Republicans have responded favorably to the intent.

Yet with both Democrats and Republicans safe in their seats because of the last redistricting, a plea "to throw the bums out" isn't likely to gain traction. Besides, many still believe that Schwarzenegger remains a conciliator at heart. If so, he will be faced with the classic dilemma of all moderates. "Does he work to placate his base, or does he look Republicans in the eye and stand up to them?" asks Professor Cain.

The shape of the emerging budget solution might offer clues. Says Senator Kuehl: "He has to say 'no' a little bit to everybody."

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