Schwarzenegger a Rotten Tomato?

Golden State critics give governor the thumbs down

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 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.

And if it’s pull quotes you’re after, their final assessment has plenty to choose from.

Arnold Schwarzenegger strove to do big things. In the process he had colossal failures, many of them handed to him by the people he claimed to have commune with. The state’s budget deficit is larger than when he took office, and the stranglehold of interest groups on the Capitol remains unbroken. For all of his talk of post-partisanship, the Capitol remains as bitterly divided as ever. Now, California turns to a new governor - one who understands the minefields of California politics better than his predecessor.

But it just may be that Arnold Schwarzenegger will be looked upon as the man who makes Jerry Brown’s success possible, leaving an imprint of state politics for years to come.

One of the more interesting Schwarzenegger reviews focuses on a topic for which you’d expect the greenie post-partisan governor to score an unmitigated “Fresh”: the environment. He is, after all, the signatory to the state’s landmark global warming bill AB 32, and an international voice advocating for forward movement on climate change. However, in Malcom Maclachlan’s “On environment, mixed reviews for Schwarzenegger,”—also published in Capitol Weekly—the assessment from environmentalists is not so simple.

On the one hand, they praised a governor who stuck his neck out, publicly championed environmental causes and did some of his best work on the nitty-gritty issues that don’t always get much attention.

On the other hand, they say the story behind the scenes was not always what it seemed — especially when it comes to the policy areas that Schwarzenegger has claimed as his major accomplishments.

It is a contention that leaves some on the governor’s staff bristling.

“You mean the greatest environmental legacy in the history of California?” asked Dan Pellissier, one of the governor’s chief environmental advisers.

“Is ‘legacy’ in quotes?” quipped former Senator Sheila Kuehl, a liberal Democrat who represented Los Angeles and frequently clashed with the governor on health care reform and other issues.

The points of tension in Schwarzenegger’s dueling environmental legacies are outlined in some detail (at least for a seven year review), with those on either side of the political spectrum lining up to offer their thoughts.

Certainly, the governor can point to a long list of environmental accomplishments.

This includes an aggressive target for renewable energy, protecting California’s fuel-efficiency standards, protecting the coast, permitting immense solar- and wind-energy projects, approving a low carbon fuel standard and, especially, his passionate defense of AB 32 against Proposition 23, the failed November initiative that would have suspended it indefinitely.

Many also credited his very public role championing environmental causes.

“I look at the progress California has made on environmental issue in the past seven years, and it compares favorably to any state in the nation,” said Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto.

But critics can say that he could have gone much further - but didn’t.

This includes areas such as restricting dangerous chemicals, not pursuing taxes on oil companies, a lack of support for public transit, threats to cut most of the state parks funding during budget cuts and a failure to fight another November initiative, Proposition 26, which many environmentalists say will make it harder to enforce environmental laws.

Ultimately, argues Maclachlan, Schwarzenegger’s trademark issue might also define his entire governorship.

In some ways, Schwarzenegger’s environmental legacy is like his governorship in microcosm, embracing the middle road in a partisan environment. Leading green-minded Democrats took him to task in the areas where they disagreed. Most Republicans disliked that he was taking on environmental issues at all. That, in a nutshell, can describe the Schwarzenegger governorship as a whole.

As all three note, it is history—and his successor, Jerry Brown—that will define Schwarzenegger. But in the meantime, we will be keeping an eye on the California press to see which way Schwarzenegger’s “tomatometer” tips as he begins to pack his bags.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.