Thomas D. Elias: Will Arnold change his plan now? |

Thomas D. Elias: Will Arnold change his plan now?

Before his wide re-election victory made him a lame-duck governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger was literally all over both the political map and the map of California.

Now that he can never seek another term and might never run for office again, it’s an open question whether or when he will turn up once more in Redding or Riverside, Eureka or Elk Grove, Madera or Murietta – all campaign stops during the last few months.

It’s also an open question where Schwarzenegger will come down on the key issues likely to confront California during the next four years. During the campaign, he sought to offer as few clues as possible, as his campaign was designed to elicit votes from hard-core Republicans, moderate

Democrats and increasingly numerous independents.

“Voters can expect exactly what they got my first three years,” he said when asked about this. “I’m not interested in a Republican or Democratic agenda. I’m interested in what’s good for all Californians. This is why I’ve taken different views at different times.”

For sure, Schwarzenegger has seemed a different politician at different times during his first, partial term.

He vetoed two bills aiming to raise the state’s minimum wage, then did an about-face and signed a bill raising the California minimum to $8 an hour over the next two years, highest in the nation.

He campaigned during the Gray Davis recall election against politicians taking money from “special interests” of any kind, but later raised more than $130 million from businesses or executives affected by state policy.

He strongly advocated providing health insurance for all California children, but quickly vetoed a bill calling for a single-payer, universal health insurance for all Californians.

He first labeled casino Indian tribes one of the “worst” special interests involved in state politics, but last summer sought to authorize 25,000 additional slot machines in several of the largest Indian casinos.

He ran for office as an advocate of free abortion choice for all pregnant women, but both this fall and during last November’s special election backed measures calling for parental notification before teenage girls can get abortions.

The open questions: Which is the real Arnold? And when will anyone find out for sure?

If you listen to Schwarzenegger, his all-over-the-map positions reflect who he is. “I learned a lot last fall,” he said, denying that the far more moderate positions he took after his 2005 special election initiatives all flopped were merely an election year ploy. Borrowing some lingo from his old career in movies, he allowed that “I saw this thing needed a rewrite.”

One remake was in the composition of his staff. He replaced his former ultra-conservative communications director Rob Stutzman with a talented political neophyte. He hired longtime Democratic operative Susan Kennedy, once the cabinet secretary for Davis, as his chief of staff.

The contradictions and changes, though, left many feeling Schwarzenegger is little more than an old fashioned “pay to play” politician oddly similar to predecessor Davis, whose recall came largely because he created the impression that as long as he was governor, public policy would be for sale.

Assessing Schwarzenegger’s record, it’s hard to find a single issue where he’s bucked his corporate sponsors. Even amid the fanfare when he okayed a supposedly pioneering bill to cap greenhouse gas emissions and fight global warming – a bill opposed by the state Chamber of Commerce and most big industries – Schwarzenegger quietly insisted on including an escape clause allowing him and future governors to suspend the new rules in case of emergency. Emergencies, of course, are not clearly defined.

But Schwarzenegger has no more need to raise money, no more need to hit up wealthy donors in places as varied as Rancho Santa Fe and Dallas, Tex. He has no more need to curry favor from voters, whose only recourse if unhappy with him would be another recall election.

Does this mean he will revert to the reformer agenda he purveyed as a recall election candidate? Or does it mean he will return to the anti-union, conservative agenda he pursued in last year’s special election? Or will this year’s more moderate Arnold turn out to be the genuine article?

No one knows, which will keep Schwarzenegger among the most intriguing figures in American politics for at least the next few years.


Thomas D. Elias is a syndicated columnist who writes about California issues. Contact him via e-mail at

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