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Arnold The Reformer

It is the political equivalent of one of Arnold Schwarzenegger's early action movies.

The hero is attacked on all sides by a dizzying array of opponents: the well-organized troops of the enemy, a motley crew of affiliated insurgent forces, and then — at the height of the battle — his own supposed allies turn against him. But the hero fights on.

This is the current state of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s battle to bring fundamental political and fiscal reform to California through direct ballot referendum (search). Opponents are set to spend more than $80 million to defeat initiatives that promote redistricting reform, paycheck protection and spending restraints on the state legislature. It is perhaps the most important election in the nation this fall, because its success or failure will determine how future grassroots efforts at political reform will fare in other states.

Currently, 11 different states — including Texas, Florida and Georgia — are home to growing grassroots redistricting reform movements (search), but only in California has a reigning chief executive thrown his muscle behind the effort. It used to be that voters chose their politicians — now politicians are choosing their voters, drawing irregular single-party districts where they are virtually guaranteed to win until retirement.

The result of this system-rigging is a 98 percent re-election rate in Congress, despite historically low approval ratings. Unaccountable taxpayer-funded pork barrel projects and harsher partisan politics are additional by-products of this corrupt bargain. Redistricting is the reform that guarantees all others.

In a state like California, you’d expect the ruling statehouse Democrats to oppose redistricting reform — after all, the system on the left coast works in their interest. But, shamefully, Republican lawmakers have failed to back the governor’s reforms, preferring the comfortable rules of the incumbency protection racket. It is a new chapter in the Profiles of Political Cowardice – Democratic and Republican leaders in Sacramento haven’t been able to agree on anything in the last 10 years except their desire to hold onto power. After 950,000 Californians signed the petition to put redistricting reform in the form of Proposition 77 (search) on the ballot, the parties then tried desperately to block it through legal appeals and technicalities. Their efforts at evasion ultimately failed, but it exemplified why legislatures can’t be trusted to reform themselves.

Another “Arnold Initiative” on the ballot this fall comes in the form of “Paycheck Protection” (search) a campaign finance reform that would restrict unions from automatically using member dues for political activities, unless they get the consent of the worker. Democratic activists howl that this would gut their election ammunition, but if they need to pick the pocket of workers to fund their campaigns, they haven’t been paying attention to the political shifts among their supposed blue-collar base — for more information: see Reagan Democrats (search).

I’m in favor of campaign finance reform, but if corporations are (rightly) restricted, then unions should be as well. It’s a matter of fairness as well as opposition to political coercion.

Beyond the corruption that comes from our hyper-partisan political environment, the greatest domestic danger facing the country is government’s abandonment of fiscal responsibility. Deficits are back, along with unrestrained government spending (search). Unfunded mandates combined with unsustainable entitlement and labor costs threaten to bring states constantly to the brink of bankruptcy.

In California between 1998 and 2004, the Legislature increased overall spending by 44 percent — from $75 billion to $108 billion. Taking a cue from Congress, they didn’t bother figuring out how to pay for it. Their troubles are compounded by pension obligations that allow state workers to retire at age 55 with 90 percent of their peak salary for the rest of their lives. California’s Proposition 76 (search) would impose a degree of fiscal sanity by requiring the legislature to spend only what it takes in. In addition, it would require that a healthy percentage of surplus dollars be placed in a rainy day account to pay for unexpected necessities such as disaster relief, without raising taxes. This is an issue of generational responsibility.

These common sense reforms are broadly popular with California voters, so Democrats have raised more than $80 million to make the issue Schwarzenegger himself. In an attempt to derail reform through the cumulative effect of a thousand cuts, Democrats have worked with unions to hound the governor at public events, attempting to recast the election as a populist resistance to a Republican-led power grab that would somehow hurt nurses, teachers and firefighters — instead of corrupt and irresponsible state legislators. But politics is perception, and these attacks haven't been ineffective.

In a counterattack, Schwarzenegger has been touring the state, campaigning with such national Republican reform leaders such as Sen. John McCain (search). His instinct to go directly to the voters recalls the circumstances of his 2003 recall election. In both cases, Schwarzenegger is relying on a progressive-era reform, the direct democracy of the ballot referendum. It is an appropriate meeting of the method, the man, and the moment.

At a time when special interest-driven state legislatures seem incapable of dealing with the larger issues facing their states, the entrenched political establishment has become the primary obstacle to reform. That is in large part why the Teddy Roosevelt wing of the Republican Party is resurgent, led by figures like Schwarzenegger, McCain and Rudy Giuliani (search). Professional partisans may consider them too independent; but that is precisely the source of their popularity across party lines. The ballot referendum mechanism is the best way to bypass old political factions and go directly to the voters.

That’s why Arnold’s reform revolution matters far beyond the confines of California. Initiatives such as redistricting reform, paycheck protection and measures to require fiscal responsibility provoke ruthless opposition from special interests. Average citizens need to respond with at least an equal amount of energy and organization. The result will determine whether the status quo breathes a sigh of relief or whether grassroots forces of reform are emboldened.

In the movies, we know the hero will prevail against seemingly insurmountable odds, but in politics, nothing is pre-ordained.

John P. Avlon is a columnist and associate editor for the New York Sun, former chief speechwriter for Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, and author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics (Random House, 2004). For more about John Avlon, visit his web site, Independent Nation.org