Arnold Schwarzenegger, Golden Boy

A year ago, he was a dead duck, defeated at the polls on three measures in a special election, all but terminated from public office.

Opinion writers everywhere were writing his eulogy. See how hard politics is, they all said. So much for action stars.

Six months ago, he was beginning to look like the “Comeback Kid,” finally working with the legislature, silencing his conservative critics, reaching out to his former Democratic opponents.

Today, as Republicans across the country race for cover, uncertain of what has hit them or how they will survive the president’s and their party’s growing unpopularity, there is one Republican who seems able to do no wrong. He is no longer the Terminated; no longer even the “Comeback Kid.”

He is the Golden Boy, on his way to all but certain re-election, with the backing of some of Hollywood’s most prominent Democrats.

In this bluest of blue states, where George Bush’s unpopularity hardly knows any limits, Arnold Schwarzenegger is sitting on a comfortable 14 point lead over his Democratic opponent Phil Angelides and has successfully co-opted virtually every one of Angelides’ issues.

According to the latest local news poll, Arnold already has the support of over 50 percent of the state’s voters. Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen, three of the most prominent Democrats in Southern California, have broken ranks to endorse him, silently signaling the direction of the wind, and the certainty of the outcome.

Talk about a reversal of fortune.

What happened?

Simple. He learned.

Schwarzenegger came to Sacramento, the state Capitol, determined to prove that government didn’t work, and he did. He took on the legislature, and produced paralysis. He thought he could govern without really governing.

And a funny thing happened. The voters didn’t buy it. Turns out in this referendum-happy state that voters still expect the legislature and the governor to get together and do something. So when Arnold went to the voters with his name calling and his ballot propositions, they did something he never expected: they sent him back to Sacramento, told him to stop squabbling, and get something done.

Which left Arnold two choices.

He could hold firm to ideology, stick to his losing guns, continue the war that people didn’t want, and lose the next election. Or he could find that magic spot in the middle where cross-party relationships are built, compromises are forged, and legislation is actually enacted.

For a Republican governor dealing with a Democratic legislature, it is truly a magic spot, and Arnold found it. He fully funded education, got the legislature to agree with him on a historic public works bond package for the November ballot, passed a budget, increased the minimum wage, capped greenhouse gas emissions, and created a discount drug plan for the uninsured.

Nobody is calling it a do-nothing legislature. Then again, nobody is calling him a do-nothing governor. The Speaker of the Assembly, Democrat Fabian Nunez, describes the governor as a “sincere person.”

In response to a question from columnist George Skelton as to whether Arnold was the right man to lead California, the Speaker said: “I’ll leave that up to the voters. I work with this governor very well. We got a lot of things done this year.”

This from the co-chair of the campaign of Phil Angelides, Arnold’s rival for governor. How would that make you feel if you were Phil?

Issueless, is the short answer.

Obviously, Arnold benefits because as a governor, he doesn’t have to deal with explain/justify the unpopular war in Iraq. Unlike his fellow Republicans in Congress, he has the luxury of running on a domestic platform. But his experience in dealing with a Democratic legislature may prove instructive to Republicans as they face the future.

The first instinct, the automatic tendency to fight your opponents, is what almost ensured Arnold a shorter tenure in politics than in the action movie business. It was only when Arnold discovered the values of centrism and compromise that he regained his political footing.

Granted this is California, but is it possible that this could be a lesson that in coming days could have broader application?

Unless Republicans are willing to learn the lessons of California, they have no business claiming any bragging rights for what is likely to be one of their few bright spots on a bleak map come November.

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Susan Estrich is currently the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California and a member of the Board of Contributors of USA Today. She writes the "Portia" column for American Lawyer Media and is a contributing editor of The Los Angeles Times. She was appointed by the president to serve on the National Holocaust Council and by the mayor of the City of Los Angeles to serve on that city's Ethics Commission.

Estrich's books include "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System," "Dealing with Dangerous Offenders," "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women" and "Sex & Power," currently a Los Angeles Times bestseller.

She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel.

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