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Unlike W, Arnold Learns the Limits of Swagger

One of the bonds between President Bush and California Governor Schwartzenegger is an inordinate fondness for swagger and verbal bravado. This stuff can play well in campaigns if you have clever writers and and lots of anger directed at your opposition, as did Arnold when he whipped Gray Davis.

But there comes a day, when the public stops chuckling and expects to see some progress toward solving their problems. That day has clearly arrived for President Bush big time, according to numerous recent polls. Now it appears that it may be dawning for Arnold, as well.

So concludes Mark Z. Barabak in his Washington Monthly article "Is Arnold Losing It? Gov. Schwarzenegger is looking less like Reagan and more like Ventura." Barabak, a political writer for the Los Angeles Times, explains:

Schwarzenegger showed during the recall that conventional politicians in a hurry-up campaign are no match for someone of his outsized personality. But governing has proven far different. He has been forced to pare back much of his second-year reform agenda. His poll numbers are sagging, and newly emboldened Democrats are challenging the governor at every turn. Now, the question is whether Schwarzenegger can make the transition from a cartoon-like character, all swagger and bluster, into a political leader capable of using his fame and considerable charm to achieve something lasting and meaningful.

Barabak describes Schwarzenegger's political awakening:

After much bluster from both sides, the governor began yielding, shelving certain proposals and signaling that he was open to negotiations on others. He was plainly wounded when teachers, nurses, police, and firefighters—all having separate beefs with Schwarzenegger—began dogging his public appearances and mussing his public image. He fired back with TV ads and rhetoric that were alternately inflammatory and contrite...For all the governor's efforts, the obtuse matters of redistricting and worker retirement just haven't stirred Californians much. Ineptitude also played a part; the governor abruptly dropped his support for a measure overhauling the state pension system when it turned out that the ballot initiative could deny death benefits to police and firefighters. The governor capitulated after weeks of bad publicity, including complaints from the widows and orphans of public-safety officers.

Arnold's approval numbers aren't as bad as Bush's, but he may be on the way, as Barabak notes:

Worse, perhaps, for a governor so image-obsessed has been his decline in public opinion surveys, which has been almost entirely a function of Democratic and independent defections. (Like President Bush, Schwarzenegger continues to enjoy near universal support among Republicans despite his disdain for party-building.) By late February, his approval number in the statewide Field Poll was a decidedly mortal 55 percent, down 10 points in five months. More galling still, the governor's rating stood a tick below that of the rejected Davis before the bottom fell out for the beleaguered Democrat amid the 2001 California energy fiasco.

Speculation about a possible run for the Presidency has also cooled considerably, partly because passing a constitutional amendment is far more difficult than beating an unpopular incumbent. As Barabak points out:

In the whole history of the United States, just 27 of more than 10,000 proposed amendments have passed. Opinion polls have shown little public support for overhauling the Constitution; one survey of California voters showed opposition running 2-to-1, and that was back when Schwarzenegger's popularity was at 65 percent. Moreover, consider the political hurdles: A proposed constitutional amendment must win the support of two-thirds of both houses of Congress, followed by ratification by 38 states. As Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scholar at the University of Southern California, notes, “There's not a senator who doesn't wake up in the morning and look in the mirror and see the next president of the United States. You think they're going to roll over and open the door for Arnold Schwarzenegger? I don't think so.”

Schwarzenegger does seem to be more able to learn from his mistakes than President Bush. And he has said that he has to produce to have a political future of any kind, and that will require putting a lid on the bluster and adopting a more conciliatory attitude, just like grown-ups -- a lesson which sems to be lost on the leader of his party.