For an action star who built a career out of mispronouncing words and blowing stuff up, Arnold Schwarzenegger didn’t do so badly with the critics during his Hollywood years. His last film to be released in cinemas—excepting his cameo in
The Execrables The Expendables—was Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, and it earned seventy percent positive reviews according to review aggregator Rottentomatoes.com. Not bad. His best-reviewed film ever was the original Terminator from way back in 1984, “fresh” at one-hundred percent. His worst: the 1979 Western comedy The Villain, which starred Kirk Douglas and is marked “rotten” with zero positive reviews.
After seven years leading California, political critics are beginning to weigh in on the outgoing governor’s Sacramento years. How does the “Tomatometer” read? Fresh? Rotten? So far, it’s a pretty mixed verdict—molding, perhaps—but overall the former star is looking more villain than terminator.
Three early reviews have surfaced today. And while they each take different approaches—one an all-encompassing general look, one environmental, another a highly detailed history lesson—there seems to be consensus. Schwarzenegger, the governorship, started strong, but lost its way. (Interestingly, this is the view shared by three reporters I spoke to last month about the Schwarzenegger “legacy.”)
The big one is from Sacramento-based Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton. His overarching assessment of Schwarzenegger’s governorship, titled “Rating Schwarzenegger”, stretches the movie connection, even more than I have here, to explain why he is awarding the governor two and-a-half stars for his performance. The bottom line: Schwarzenegger failed to deliver on his most important challenge.
His was a good act for awhile—all that rhetoric about “I’m gonna clean house” and “kick some serious butt,” “end the crazy deficit spending” and “tear up the credit card.”
Placing the state on a sound fiscal footing—“we must live within our means”—was his most important task, after all. It’s the principal reason he was elected and Davis was recalled.
And Schwarzenegger failed.
Staring into a perpetual deficit hole—currently $25 billion for the next 19 months—the state isn’t living within its means today any more than it was under Davis. Maybe less so.
Following that, Skelton gives a sweeping and sometimes scolding year-by-year assessment of Schwarzenegger’s performance, beginning with the “low point” in 2005 when the governor attempted to pass a suite of four unpopular initiatives, including pension reform. He ends in the style of Roger Ebert:
Schwarzenegger was miscast as governor. He should have been a potentate who could bark orders without being pestered by a Legislature.
The most common description of his reign is “disappointing.” But that’s partly because he himself set an impossibly high bar and didn’t have a clue at first how to approach it.
The Schwarzenegger show did have some entertainment value, a rarity in state government. He gets a half star for that.
Readers less familiar with the last seven years of California state politics might do better to dip into John Howard and Anthony York’s “Schwarzenegger’s odyssey: The powerful personal touch went untapped,” at Capitol Weekly, the Politico-like weekly read by Sacramento insiders. Howard and York offer up criticisms similar to Skelton’s, with more detail on what they perceive to be the governor’s failure to communicate with the public and to navigate the politics of Sacramento. And the movie star metaphor is never too far away.
The national and international media covered California as they covered Hollywood - by focusing on the star.
But those early victories created a false impression of how easy it would be to extract victories in the world of Sacramento politics. And as California reporters looked behind the show biz curtain, troubles loomed on the political horizon.
Of the unpopular 2005 reforms, the pair explains the forces facing the governor.
Schwarzenegger thought he could once again use the threat of a ballot-box war to leverage Democrats. Schwarzenegger wanted a deal on budget reform and redistricting, and probably would have been willing to set aside the rest. The union-dues measure was supposed to be a bargaining chip, but it only served to mobilize labor unions who felt they were under attack .
Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger held a bunch of made-for-television photo ops that earned guffaws from most political insiders - spigots of red budget ink, Count Cartaxula, et. al. Schwarzenegger seemed to be flailing as his strategy for a deal fell apart and he headed into a special election that insiders say he never really wanted.
His bluff had been called, and Schwarzenegger was holding rags.