Monday, May 30, 2011

Two Views on Schwarzenegger's Legacy as Governor

He's been back in the news these days for reasons unrelated to politics, but Arnold Schwarzenegger's recent mishaps in his personal life have caused us to think back on his many mishaps as California's governor. And we're not the only ones: the Sacramento Bee's Dan Walters and Cal Watchdog's John Seiler have also been thinking about the legacy Arnold left us.

Sadly, this was not Arnold's worst performance as Santa Claus. That is found in his policy-making record.
According to Walters, Schwarzenegger's failings as a husband have nothing to do with his failings as Governor. "Schwarzenegger's record as governor, positive and negative, stands on its own and has nothing to do with the child he fathered before entering politics." Furthermore, Walters credits the Kindergarten Cop with tackling the difficult issues of infrastructure spending, redistricting, and water policy, and largely waves away his mistakes. "Mostly, Schwarzenegger failed not because of his own lapses, but because California's political structure generates failure regardless of who occupies the office." In other words, California is impossible to govern, and you can't blame that on Arnold.

Seiler, however, is less forgiving, explaining that Schwarzenegger refused to restore the Gann Limit in November 2003 despite being repeatedly urged to do so. This limit would've prohibited the state's budget from growing at a rate greater than population growth plus inflation. "Had he done so, voters overwhelmingly would have approved it, the budget would have been balanced every year, and Arnold would have left office a political hero." Instead, Schwarzenegger decided to borrow $15 billion to pay expenses until revenues rebounded, and pushed Prop 58, a toothless balanced budget law. Moreover, Seiler points out that Arnold ignored the fragility of the real-estate boom and jacked up government spending at astounding rates, hiking it 15% to $91.6 billion in 2005-06 and another 10% to $101.4 billion in 2006-07. By this standard, Jerry Brown's California is Galt's Gulch. In spite of being pushed into office with the mandate to reverse Gray Davis's tax hikes, by 2009 he was raising taxes by $13 billion himself. For these reasons, Seiler isn't nearly so willing to let Schwarzenegger off the hook.

Our feelings fall somewhere in the middle. We agree with all of Seiler's criticisms, of course, but in a way Walters has a point. California's government is broke and corrupt because nearly everyone involved in government here wants it that way. And no matter how great a leader you put into the Governor's mansion, he or she would still face the reality of being one politician among many in Sacramento. And he or she would be just as tempted as Schwarzenegger was and as Brown has been to throw new taxpayer money away. To the extent that no one can be trusted with the power Schwarzenegger had, it's silly to call him out for using it in an entirely foreseeable way. Even if his mistakes were truly awful ones.


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