SAN FRANCISCO – Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (search) rode an extraordinary wave of popularity in his first year, thanks to a blend of celebrity, political smarts, and a bit of rookie luck. But the so-called Governator now faces so much criticism that many wonder whether he might be a mere mortal after all.
The Republican governor who negotiated tough agreements with Democrats, charmed legislators with visits to his smoking tent and met rapturous crowds at shopping malls across California has hit a sophomore slump, marked by a series of actions that his adversaries are calling naive and even hypocritical.
His state budget proposal relies on $6 billion in borrowing, despite a campaign pledge to end such borrowing. He angered teachers by refusing to give about $2 billion in unanticipated revenues to schools. He is raking in contributions from business interests despite a pledge to end the influence of special-interest money in Sacramento. And his bipartisan image has been tarnished by a government restructuring plan that takes aim at Democratic constituencies like public employees and teachers.
While Schwarzenegger is still well-liked by most Californians, polling suggests his once bulletproof popularity may be taking a hit.
A new survey by the Public Policy Institute of California (search) shows that while 60 percent of the state's residents still approve of the job he is doing, he has lost considerable ground among Democrats and Independents, who together form the vast majority of the state's voters. Some 49 percent of Democrats now say they disapprove of his job performance, while 43 percent approve. And his disapproval rating among Independents has doubled since last year, from 18 to 32 percent.
"It's back to business as usual in Sacramento - the fuss of last year is over," said Shaun Bowler, a political science professor at University of California-Riverside. "People have responded to the movie version of leadership that he's been practicing, but you can't suspend the laws of gravity forever just because you're a movie star."
The waning of Schwarzenegger's political honeymoon has restored confidence to the legislative Democrats Schwarzenegger labeled "girlie-men" and "losers." They're no longer as cowed by his star power. And groups like the California Teachers Association (search) — who agreed last year to temporarily give up $2 billion in constitutionally mandated education funding in exchange for future revenues, only to see Schwarzenegger refuse to give them the extra money they wanted this year — have begun to question his credibility.
"Compared to the man last year, I've discovered a new person who the kids and teachers of California can't trust," said CTA President Barbara Kerr.
The PPIC poll showed fully 51 percent of Californians now disapprove of Schwarzenegger's handling of education.
Schwarzenegger has taken steps in recent days to deflect the mounting criticism, using two press conferences in the past week alone to promote his agenda. He declared that this would be the year to bring needed reforms to California, and derided legislators as stubborn defenders of the status quo.
"I thought they'd come to the table and create some action," Schwarzenegger said. "People want reform. It's what the recall election was about. They want to have changes."
At the heart of Schwarzenegger's reform agenda are four measures aimed at reducing the clout of public employees and teachers, and ending the power of incumbency in Sacramento.
He wants to convert the state's public pension program to a 401(k) (search)-style system, require merit pay (search) for teachers, and redraw congressional and state legislative boundaries to make the seats more competitive. He also wants to establish a mechanism that would automatically slash state spending when it exceeded revenues.
It appears all but certain that Schwarzenegger will move forward with his trademark strategy: bypassing the Legislature and taking his plan to voters in a special election to be held this fall. It would be the fourth major statewide election in three years, costing the state at least $50 million.
"I don't think he's got a choice but to do a special election, but I think he'd prefer not to," said GOP strategist Kevin Spillane. "Schwarzenegger has been energized by his interactions with the Legislature, and radicalized by their intransigence."
Meanwhile, newly emboldened Democrats are crafting their own set of proposals, which they believe have more relevance to middle-class Californians - in the areas of education, health care and transportation. And as if to tamp down their reputation as big spenders and compulsive tax raisers, they've focused much of their rhetoric on a commitment to fix the state's budget problems.
"We'll have full hearings on each and every one of the (governor's) proposals at the right time, but I fully admit they're not our No. 1 priority," said Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez. "Balancing the budget is our No. 1 priority."
Indeed, many critics see Schwarzenegger's push for political reform as a red herring, obscuring the fact that his chief campaign promise — to balance the budget and wipe out the state's crippling deficit — has remained maddeningly unfulfilled.
"Remember the recall campaign, where he talked about the budget, opening the books, stop this ridiculous deficit spending," said longtime Democratic strategist Garry South. "He hasn't done it. The biggest problem we have is the budget is spiraling out of control, and nothing he puts on the ballot is going to change that fact."
Schwarzenegger is adhering to a vow not to raise taxes, and insisted this week that the state's budget is on the right track. He's also begun calling attention to the rigid formulas embedded in the state's budgeting system that make deficit spending almost inevitable.
"That's what the people expect us to do - to create reforms, and to save the state from those formulas that send us to bankruptcy," Schwarzenegger said. "Eventually we are going to meet that line between revenue and spending."
Schwarzenegger has not yet said whether he will run for re-election in 2006, and most analysts still view him as an overwhelming favorite to win if he chooses to run. But perhaps sensing some potential vulnerability in Schwarzenegger, one prominent Democrat, Attorney General Bill Lockyer (search), indicated this month he plans to run for governor in 2006 - whether Schwarzenegger is in the race or not.