Why I Voted for Schwarzenegger
By Mickey Kaus
Updated Tuesday, October 7, 2003, at 8:23 PM PT
Why I voted for Schwarzenegger: Andrew Sullivan says I’m a “wuss” for not explaining how I voted in the California recall. My editor wants an explanation too. Fair enough. Here goes.
First, a potential bias disclosure: Voting is not an entirely rational process. Even as I’m sitting down to write this, all my instincts tell me to vote for Schwarzenegger. Many journalists I respect are for him. The journalists I like to have as my enemies are against him. My Democratic friends think I’m insane, which lends a little contrarian frisson to life. Falling in behind the Democratic party line would be no fun at all. You should know all these biases and discount what follows as appropriate.
1) Davis: I should like Gray Davis. He’s a relatively conservative Democrat. I agree with most of his “positions.” The two main complaints against him are both process complaints, but they are very powerful.
a) He runs a corrupting “pay to play” administration: You give him campaign contributions, you have a chance of getting a decision your way. Virtually everyone, including most of the Democrats now defending Davis, agrees with this charge. For decades, goo-goo reformers have written op-eds calling on the people to rise up against the corrupting influence of campaign contributions. Well, in California the people are finally rising up agains thte corrupting influence of campaign contributions. Where are the goo-goos?
b) He’s weak and won’t risk losing votes: Specifically, he hasn’t stood up to powerful Democratic interest groups, especially public employee unions, or to the Democratic legislature. He relies on polls to tell him what he should do. In two big crises–the budget crisis, and the electricity crisis–these instincts led him to dawdle when he needed to take firm action (spending cuts, small electrical rate hikes) that would have produced huge long-term benefits for the state at the expense of short-term political opposition (from unions and consumer groups). The textbook poli-sci reasons for opposing mid-term recalls–that leaders should be able to do unpopular things that will pay off eventually–are particularly inapposite when applied to Davis, who is terrified precisely of doing potentially unpopular things that will pay off eventually. For decades, New Democrat reformers have been trying to free the party from the grip of powerful constituencies–not only unions, but seniors and civil rights lobbies–that increasingly stand in the way of achieving the party’s larger goals (which I would define as social equality, a society where you don’t need a big income to live a decent life as an equal). But a New Dem who can pull that off will have to be strong enough to take some risks and endure short-term pain.
It doesn’t help that, in Davis’ desperation to save his job, he has caved to the party’s left and signed ill-considered legislation a) giving drivers’ licenses, and thereby de facto amnesty, to illegal immigrants and b) imposing an expensive health care mandate on small businesses in what is probably a futile, Arizona-benefitting attempt to achieve in one state what needs to be achieved nationally.
Does the punishment of a humiliating recall fit Davis’ crimes? Maybe not. But the issue isn’t fairness to Davis. It’s the future of the state. If the voters brutally and unfairly punish a state-of-the-art pol who overspends in boom times and puts off tough decisions until after he’s reelected, that doesn’t seem to me a terrible precedent to set. It seems a useful precedent.
2) Schwarzenegger: He’s a social liberal and fiscal conservative, with a touch of environmentalism thrown in. What’s not to like? More important, in a bit of luck Schwarzenegger couldn’t have planned, he can legitimately trumpet virtues that correspond exactly to Davis’ flaws. Yes, he takes money from business special interests–but he’s nowhere near as dependent on shaking down interest groups than is Davis, who has no independent base of popular support. Plus, Schwarzenegger has singled out two especially powerful lobbies–casino tribes and government employee unions–for adversarial treatment. (See his appealing 100 day agenda.)
Bruce Cain, the overquoted Berkeley professor, was just on television sneering that the recall doesn’t get California any closer to solving its problems. What an idiot. Schwarzenegger as governor will have weapons Davis doesn’t have, the most important of which is the ability to go over the heads of the legislature and rally public support–behind an initiative, if necessary. He might even be able to threaten to go into legislator’s districts and campaign against them (although the state is so heavily gerrymandered there may be no unsafe “swing” districts left). You want to amend the state Constitution to get rid of the paralyzing requirement that two-thirds of the legislature approve any budget? Schwarzenegger is the man who can do it. You want a tax increase if cutting the budget isn’t enough to close the deficit? Schwarzenegger’s the man for that too. As a nominal Republican, he is in a position to attract at least some Republican votes for a budget package that includes both taxes and cuts. And if even an anti-tax candidate like Schwarzenegger tells the voters some increases are needed, they’re more likely to accept it from him than from a Democrat whose first instinct is to pay whatever it takes to avoid public employee layoffs.
The difficult problems with Schwarzenegger have to do with his character–not even his credentials or abilities. He’s certainly smart enough–if you interview enough politicians, you realize that a) they’re not so brilliant (Willie Brown is an exception) and b) you can be a good leader even if you’re not brilliant. He’s also, by all accounts, geniunely funny, with an instinct for honesty. (Can you imagine Bill Clinton saying “where there’s smoke, there’s fire”?) But Schwarzenegger has two really troubling characterological defects.
a) He’s a crude serotonin victim who enjoys bullying men and women alike. Everyone knew there were stories like the LAT presented last week. I’ve heard even more. He’s not a groper the way Clinton was a groper–Schwarzenegger seems to actually have a cruel streak in which he enjoys humiliating others. With women, there’s a sexual component–but there are plenty of stories of him humiliating men. (And at least one of the groping incidents seems designed to humiliate the woman’s husband more than the woman.)
b) He may not even be a social egalitiarian. This is one way to reconcile the accounts from famous actresses of “Arnold the Gentlemen” and the repulsive stories told by “below the line” film personnel. Of course Schwarzenegger’s charming to the people he needs to be charming too–such as fellow movie stars. But he lords it over people he can lord it over when he can get away with it. Let’s just say this hierarchical behavior is not un-Germanic. But it is un-American. You’d think it would be especially troubling to someone, like me, who proclaims social equality the distinguishing goal of liberal politics.
O.K. It is troubling! Schwarzenegger puts to voters, in a particularly sharp way, the same question Clinton put to voters: Can you separate personal failings from performance in office. Except that in Schwarzenegger’s case the dilemma is worse, because –as an LAT editorial perceptively noted–Schwarzenegger’s very flaws are the very things that might actually help him perform better in office. Maybe a governor who is manipulative and mean is just the man to subdue the unions, the casino tribes and entrenched, free-spending Democratic legislators.
I’m willing to take a flyer on that possibility, given the possible upside virtues, comforted by the knowledge that, thanks to the Constitution, Schwarzenegger can’t use his governorship as a steppingstone to the presidency. It’s only a state we’re talking about! (That’s another reason the poli-sci argument against mid-term ousters of temporarily-unpopular leaders doesn’t apply with much force.. We’re not talking about booting Lincoln in the middle of a Civil War. We’re talking about a car tax.) If Schwarzenegger flies into a fascistic, steroid-fueled rage–well, he doesn’t have his finger on the button. He can’t suspend the bill of rights.
In a perverse way, I think Schwarzenegger’s character defects may even serve as a valuable protection against the dangers of his ascendancy. It’s not just that he will be on his best behavior toward women, or that he will take special care not to come across as an authoritarian who disrespects the “little men” and “losers.” It’s that the flaws in all their ugliness are now visible to everyone–they’ve done their damage, making it impossible for him to think about building the sort of cult of personality his Nuremberg-rally fantasies might otherwise tempt him to build. We know he’s a pig. We’re not going to love him. If he’s going to keep our loyalty it will have to be by producing actual results: a slimmed down government, a balanced budget, better schools, a better business climate, etc.
And if he doesn’t–hey, we can always recall him.