Walters: He would say the anti-greenhouse gas emission law (AB 32), if it survives in November’s ballot measure vote, and perhaps reforming legislative redistricting (which also m
ust survive November ballot measure) and primary election process. But, as noted, two of the three are problematic and the third’s impact, if any, is unknown.

And his biggest blunders?

Miranda: Hands down it was the 2005 special election. Schwarzenegger had success in 2004 with two initiatives. He thought he could carry a lot of that political capital the following year. When lawmakers wouldn’t go along in 2005 with the various reforms he wanted, he declared a special election and went to the ballot box with four initiatives. One of those initiatives dealt with pension reform. Labor unions successfully portrayed that as taking benefits away from the widows and children of police officers and firefighters killed in the line of duty. The nurses union also got involved because Schwarzenegger months earlier said things they didn’t like either. All the public employees unions pretty much ganged up on the governor. His popularity started a downward spiral. He managed to get re-elected in 2006 for two reasons: the Democrats put up an unwinnable candidate, and the state enjoyed better than expected revenues that year.

Myers: Politically, there was a time right after the recall election when there was a complicated negotiation between the governor and the Democratic leadership in the legislature about how to solve the financial problem Schwarzenegger had inherited. The compromise was a proposal to borrow money to fill that debt—a series of deficit bonds that Schwarzenegger put on the ballot in March 2004. The decision to borrow money to finance part of the deficit fix and a ballot measure that, while Schwarzenegger could have pushed for a new cap or limit on state spending, was watered down to basically say the state must have a balanced budget. After six weeks of negotiations where the legislature saw him compromise on a lot of things and play the inside politics game, they quickly sensed that there was no reason to fear him anymore.

Nationally, he has assumed the profile of an independent. To what extent is this a truth or a press creation?

Miranda: I really do think he’s an independent. He’s angered quite a few Republicans along the way while in office. He railed quite a few times against the Bush administration for not getting it in terms of global warming. He tried to tell his fellow Republicans at one GOP convention “they were dying at the box office” for being too conservative for California.

Walters: I think it’s quite accurate. He is a genuine pragmatic centrist, tough on crime, business issues, spending, and taxes, and soft on the environment and social issues such as gay marriage and abortion. In fact, ideologically he’s exactly in the California middle, but as his equally centrist predecessors, especially Gray Davis, discovered, being in the middle makes you a friendless target in an ideologically polarized Capitol.

Is there an aspect of the governor that the national press misses when it is reporting on him?

Miranda: I always crack up when the national press injects Hollywood references into their stories about Schwarzenegger. After the first couple of years, we California-based reporters wouldn’t go there. We rarely reference his movies unless he does.

Walters: The national press never got out of celebrity mode. Schwarzenegger can be a buffoon at times, but he’s actually quite intelligent and perceptive about the larger world, much more so than other politicians in the Capitol, and very much his own man, not a tool of anyone.

Myers: I understand the points that the national press makes about Schwarzenegger. The trouble is for those of us who live in California, is that Schwarzenegger’s ability to communicate to the world feels like half of the story. Schwarzenegger was not elected for those reasons. He was elected to try and solve California’s immediate problems. There was a sense in the fall of 2003 that California was headed off a cliff. We still have problems— systemic budget problems, an electorate that feels like it’s going off the cliff. It feels like déjà vu.

Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.