Commentary Magazine

A Guide to Schwarzenegger Country

You already know the story: the incumbent governor of California runs out of money. Having spent the entire budget surplus accumulated by his predecessor, he then goes on to sign bills that call for even more spending. To conceal the empty treasury without raising taxes, he adopts some accounting tricks. He is widely disliked by both liberal and conservative members of his own party. California, despite having one of the largest economies and enjoying one of the highest percapita incomes in the world, is in trouble. To everyone’s amazement, the voters begin to look seriously at a movie actor as a candidate to replace him.

I am writing, of course, of 1966. Pat Brown, a Democrat and a thoroughly decent man, was having great trouble paying the state’s bills. To avoid raising taxes, he shifted California’s accounting practices from a cash to an accrual basis, thereby allowing the state to count as “revenue” money due instead of money actually received. Left-wing Democrats hated him because he did not bluntly oppose the war in Vietnam; right-wing Democrats disliked him because he was too bold on civil rights. And so, out of the blue, came Ronald Reagan. Knowledgeable political operatives gave Reagan no chance to win, but he did, and by over a million votes.1

Not long after Reagan took office, I wrote an article for COMMENTARY trying to explain to my uncomprehending Eastern friends why “this movie actor” had won.2 My argument was that Reagan was not simply handsome and articulate but that he knew—indeed, he deeply felt—some things about the state that most outsiders (and even many Californians) did not. He knew that people wanted their government to be fiscally sound. He understood the enormous value that Californians attached to private property. He realized that most voters were upset by the student protesters who were disrupting the Berkeley campus of the University of California and by the rioting in the black community of Watts near Los Angeles. Reagan won the election easily.

His triumph, especially when put together with prior and subsequent gubernatorial victories by other Republicans—Frank Merriam, Earl Warren, Goodwin Knight, George Deukmejian, and Pete Wilson—gave rise to the view that California had become essentially Republican territory, a belief reinforced by the fact that Republican presidential candidates also carried the state in 1952, 1956, 1960, 1968, 1972, 1980, 1984, and 1988. And that is why, in turn, Bill Clinton’s victories in 1992 and 1996 led some to conclude that things had changed again, and that California had now suddenly gone Democratic.

Things have indeed changed over the years, but California was never solidly Republican to begin with. It is, rather, a deeply divided state, with very liberal Democrats and very conservative Republicans clumped together. Electoral returns reflect this at every level.

The biggest divide, as Michael Barone has pointed out, is between “Coastal California” and “Heartland California.” The former, consisting chiefly of Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and San Francisco counties, is home to the liberal Left. The latter, consisting of Orange and San Diego counties and those in the Central Valley, is home to people on the Right. Each casts about half the state’s votes. Coastal California voted for Al Gore for President in 2000 and Gray Davis for governor in 1998 and 2002. Heartland California voted for George W. Bush for President and, for governor, Dan Lungren in 1998 and Bill Simon in 2002.

But the picture is more complicated than that. A Republican gubernatorial candidate, in order to patch together a state-wide victory, must exercise broad popular appeal (as Warren did) or be on the right side of a compelling social issue like crime or rioting (as Reagan, Deukmejian, and Wilson were). To carry the state in a national election, a Republican presidential nominee has to be a political moderate (Eisenhower and Bush Sr.) or a favorite son (Nixon and Reagan). Otherwise, the Democrat will likely win. Especially in recent years, with the increase in the numbers of newly arrived immigrant groups, the state’s liberal-Democratic orientation has been growing.



The complexities I have sketched affect the way candidates from both parties campaign and govern. For one thing, even the state’s conservative governors do not look so conservative when you examine what they have done in office. As Lou Cannon observes, although Reagan promised to “squeeze, cut, and trim” the budget, in his first week as governor he set in motion the largest tax increase in the state’s history, and then went on to sign bills that made it easier to get divorces and abortions. George Deukmejian, defying the National Rifle Association, signed a bill limiting access to assault weapons. Pete Wilson was another Republican who raised taxes.

Analogous constraints operate on Democratic office-holders. Gray Davis was a former chief of staff to Jerry Brown, the most outspokenly liberal governor in California’s recent history. But when Davis first ran for the state house in 1998 his approach was self-consciously pragmatic rather than visionary. His pragmatism even led him into negative advertising, as when he compared Dianne Feinstein, to whom he had lost the 1992 Democratic nomination for U.S. Senator, with Leona Helmsley, the convicted New York City tax evader. Although Davis lived in Coastal California, he got closer to Heartland Californians by supporting the death penalty; on taking office, he promised to “govern neither from the Left nor the Right, but from the center.”3 To satisfy the liberal teachers’ union, he signed several bills concerned with improving education; to satisfy conservatives, he vetoed laws aimed at restoring bilingual education, reimposing racial quotas, and banning “racial profiling” in police work. He also opposed gay marriages.

What undid him was money. A ridiculous California law, passed before Davis became governor and supposedly intended to deregulate the electricity industry, led to rolling blackouts when the utilities, compelled to buy power on the high and rising spot market, were unable to sell it except at low, regulated prices. To “solve” the problem without raising consumer prices or revising the law, Davis signed long-term contracts with power suppliers at inflated prices and bought the state’s power transmission lines for a staggering $12 billion. Meanwhile, he was throwing big sums at all manner of new projects. In just four years, he permitted spending to increase by $27 billion and the ranks of state employees to expand by 15 percent.

When the economy turned sour and tax revenue fell, Davis was left with a sobering dilemma: he had gone through $8 billion in accumulated surpluses and then proceeded to run up a whopping $38 billion in deficits. Although he was able to gain a second term by defeating Bill Simon in 2002, he did so by a narrow margin, winning fewer than half the votes despite facing an inexperienced opponent of pronounced conservative views plus minor third-party candidates. He might nevertheless have retained some political leeway had he not already given up so much ground. Liberals had long since ceased to see Davis as their advocate, and conservatives did not think of him as their friend. He had no political base; he had been, in effect, too centrist for his own good.

Not until this fall’s recall campaign did Davis try to re-create a liberal base for himself. The Democrat-controlled legislature, fearful of a Republican resurgence, began passing a host of laws that in his early days in office Davis might well have refused to sign (and in one case had indeed already refused to sign): increasing environmental regulation, granting same-sex couples many rights once reserved for married male-female couples, allowing illegal immigrants to obtain drivers’ licenses, and requiring many businesses to provide health insurance. Davis signed them all, eagerly.

But it was too late; you cannot create a political base at the last moment. Although most liberals did vote against his recall, about one-quarter of all Democrats voted for it.



California is indisputably the nation’s leader in direct democracy. The state has held endless referenda on ballot propositions, and several recall elections. Three justices of the state’s Supreme Court, including Chief Justice Rose Bird, were recalled in 1986.

I happen to be a fan of representative democracy, something that makes me instinctively suspicious of ballot initiatives and recall elections. I did not like California’s voter-approved term-limit law, not only because (like all such laws) it prevents people from rewarding officials they like with reelection but because the California version simply leads politicians to trade one government job for another as their term expires. The voters also supported Proposition 187, which tried to apply clearly unconstitutional (and wrong-headed) restrictions on what illegal immigrants could do. If the courts had not overturned it, a little girl who showed up for first grade dressed in her Sunday best could have been barred from school because her Mexican parents had entered the country unlawfully.

Prudent fiscal management in California has been rendered vastly more difficult by still other propositions the voters have approved. Proposition 98 requires an expenditure of at least 40 percent of general revenue on K-12 education, whatever the state’s other needs may be. Proposition 49, prominently supported by Arnold Schwarzenegger a year ago, commits a half-billion dollars a year to after-school programs. In 2003, the voters were asked to support a proposition that would commit between 1 and 3 percent of the general revenue to infrastructure like highways, universities, and prisons. (It was defeated.) According to an estimate cited by the Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton, at least two-thirds of the state’s general funds are “tied up by voter and federal mandates.” Whether or not the mandated expenditures are affordable depends on general economic conditions; but this is no way to manage a budget or make decisions.

True, the voters have done some things I endorse, as when they curtailed the property tax (which in my view ought to be abolished altogether), eliminated state-managed racial and ethnic preferences, and drastically curtailed bilingual education. But no one has figured out a way to let the voters act on good measures while preventing them from passing bad ones. If I were still teaching Ph.D. students, I would give one of them that assignment.

In any event, recalling a governor while he is in office is a deeply troubling experience. Eighteen states now have recall provisions. In general the requirements are quite tough: in most states, according to Alan Greenblatt in Governing magazine, you need to gather signatures from at least 25 percent of the voters; in seven, there must be specific grounds for a recall, such as corruption or malfeasance. But in California, the process is simplicity itself. All you need are the signatures of 12 percent of the voters in the last gubernatorial election, which is hardly a difficult hurdle if you can find the money to hire signature collectors. Nor does the law oblige you to state any specific grounds for the recall. As for replacing the recalled governor, that is done everywhere else in a separate, special election; only in California is the balloting for a replacement conducted simultaneously with the recall vote. To be a candidate for this election, you need pay only $3,500 and gather 65 signatures, something that 135 people were able to do this year.

I was not a fan of Gray Davis, but he was elected and, absent impeachment, was entitled to serve out his term. The idea that 135 people could run for his office by writing a modest check was absurd. And yet, to give Californians their due, the results of the October election were neither absurd nor even close.

In the recall vote, proponents outnumbered opponents by 54 to 46 percent. In the balloting for a replacement, a few votes were admittedly wasted on publicity hounds: porn publisher Larry Flynt received 15,000, porn actress Mary Carey 10,000, and over-the-hill TV actor Gary Coleman 12,000. As if to underline the error of having a new governor selected in the same balloting as a recall, two candidates who had dropped out of the race much earlier, Arianna Huffington and Peter Ueberroth, collected 64,000 votes between them. Still, contrary to what many predicted, most people did not throw away their votes. Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante, the only prominent Democrat running, got 32 percent, while Schwarzenegger won 48 percent and State Senator Tom McClintock 13 percent, giving the two leading Republican candidates a solid 61 percent of the vote.



What is the lesson of the recall? Although there has been much talk about the transformation of American politics into a species of entertainment, this is much too imprecise a charge. To me, the California recall represents something more specific: the dislike many people feel for the politicians who are presented to them by the state’s parties.

One can see this illustrated in the figures for voter turnout. If we go back a number of decades, to the statewide elections of 1962 and 1966, we find almost four out of every five registered voters in California casting a ballot; by 2002, that figure had fallen to slightly more than half. (Measuring turnout as a proportion not of registered voters but of citizens eligible to vote gives us a drop from almost 60 to a little over 30 percent.) For the recall election this past October, turnout rose to about 60 percent of registered voters, which is a high number but still way below the turnout in the 2000 presidential election.

In part, the decline in voter turnout surely reflects anger at the performance of particular elected officials. In a recent Field poll, only 19 percent of California’s voters approved of the state legislature, and only 23 percent liked Governor Davis. (In 1998, fully 57 percent of the voters had approved of the state legislature, and in 2000, 61 percent approved of Davis.) But ten years ago, in 1993, almost exactly the same low opinion was registered both of the state legislature and of the then-governor, Pete Wilson. This is not a coincidence: then, as now, the state was in a fiscal crisis, and no one had much confidence in the likelihood of a budget being produced that made any sense.

Such specific circumstances aside, the growing popularity of direct democracy in California may well be traceable to dissatisfaction of another sort. The beauty of the recall system, which allows virtually anyone to become a candidate for governor, is that it bypasses the direct primary system—that is, the system whereby each party selects its own candidates for office. Those contests have increasingly attracted only the most highly motivated voters—i.e., very liberal Democrats and very conservative Republicans. Hence, the winning candidates tend not to reflect the average concerns of each party’s voters.

Admittedly, this is less of a problem for Democrats, who typically elect liberals to statewide office, than for Republicans, for whom it means that the party winds up with very conservative candidates with little chance of winning a general election. The last two primary-chosen Republican candidates for governor were Dan Lungren and Bill Simon, both of whom espoused views well to the Right of the typical voter. The last several Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate were Tom Campbell, Matt Fong, and Bruce Herschensohn. That Campbell, despite his moderate views on social issues, lost to Dianne Feinstein was probably inevitable; she is the most popular elected official in the state. But that Fong and Herschensohn lost to Barbara Boxer, a very liberal Democrat who denounced the Persian Gulf war and Operation Iraqi Freedom, points very clearly to the failure of the primary system to find candidates who can attract centrist voters.

The recall campaign made it possible for Arnold Schwarzenegger and Peter Ueberroth to become serious gubernatorial candidates. I doubt that either man could have won a Republican primary. Schwarzenegger, after all, supports abortion, gun control, and strong environmental laws, and Ueberroth is likewise a moderate on social issues. Ueberroth eventually dropped out, as did Bill Simon, when neither was able to gather public support matching Schwarzenegger’s. That left Tom McClintock, a Republican state senator who is not only an expert on government but a firm opponent of tax increases. Although some Republicans, eager to win the general election, urged McClintock to drop out as well, he refused, asserting that the voters were smart enough to decide for themselves.

He was right. Four days before the election, 47 percent of likely California voters told a Field poll they thought McClintock would do a good or excellent job as governor; only 41 percent thought that of Schwarzenegger. But, despite their confidence in McClintock, only 16 percent said they would vote for him. The reason was obvious: with his pronounced anti-tax views, he could not win. In the election he got 13 percent of the vote.



No one knows what Arnold Schwarzenegger can do about the huge budget deficit incurred by Gray Davis and tenuously financed by issuing more state bonds to an unenthusiastic market. In the recall election, the leading Democrat, Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante, said that he would raise taxes, while on the Republican side, as we have seen, Tom McClintock offered a pledge of no tax increases at all. Neither is a viable strategy. Higher taxes would drive even more businesses out of the state, and in any case taxes never raise the amount of cash that is forecast for them. But a policy of no new taxes, unless it were accompanied by heroic (and unlikely) spending cuts, would leave the budget deficit in place.

Arnold Schwarzenegger pledged no new taxes unless they were really necessary. That is just about where Ronald Reagan was in 1967 and, coupled with Schwarzenegger’s liberal views on social issues, was apparently what a lot of voters wanted to hear. But the challenge to the new governor is profound and possibly intractable.

California is apparently trying to become part of Scandinavia: it already taxes and regulates so heavily that many businesses and lots of ordinary people are leaving for states with healthier economic climates. According to the Tax Foundation, California has the second heaviest business-tax burden in the nation, and a personal income tax that is not only steeply progressive but much higher than that in the neighboring states of Arizona, Nevada, and Oregon. On top of this, the new governor is confronting a pro-tax legislature and powerful interest groups (teachers, prison guards, trial lawyers) who want him to spend even more. Even if he himself takes a tough line, the legislature can pass a budget only if two-thirds of its members vote for it. Liberals, who dominate, can easily block what they do not like; so can fiscal conservatives, who are but a small minority.

The temptation may be to go for still more direct democracy. Referenda, indeed, may be Schwarzenegger’s only recourse if he hopes to lighten the fiscally crushing burden enacted by California’s Democrats in the last four months while Davis was eagerly trying to capture their support. Since there is little chance the legislature will repeal what the new governor does not like just because the new governor does not like it, he may have to ask the voters to do it for him. (Already a movement is under way to gather enough signatures so that the voters can decide what to do about drivers’ licenses for illegal aliens.)

But the danger here is all too evident: having replaced Davis via a recall campaign, Schwarzenegger can himself be confronted with such a campaign at virtually any moment. In California, anybody with access to money can keep the heat on a governor more or less permanently.



Nor is recall fever likely to be limited to California. Alan Greenblatt quotes the director of the Initiative and Referendum Institute, M. Dane Waters, as saying that he has been inundated with phone calls from people who want to know how to start recall efforts in their own states. To do it as readily as it is done in California would require much easier constitutional rules than now operate in those states, but that is not impossible to bring about. After all, over 60 percent of American cities already have recall provisions; in the five-year period ending in 2001, recall elections took place in about 10 percent of them. The expansion of access to easy recall would plunge goverment still further into an exercise in incessant public-opinion polling and electoral politics into a permanent campaign—a benefit to hired political consultants, surely, but to no one else.

Can California at least hope for a change in the law regulating recalls, perhaps altering it so as to exclude fringe candidates who seek only publicity, or ensuring that the recall of an elected official can happen only under circumstances of malfeasance, corruption, or neglect of duties? I doubt it. When the Field poll asked California voters in late September whether the recall law should be changed, only 39 percent wanted to make the process more difficult, while 54 percent preferred either no change or a process that was even easier than at present. The problem with direct democracy is that people like it.



1 I take this summary from Lou Cannon’s splendid new history, Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power (Public Affairs, 592 pp., $30.00).

2 “A Guide to Reagan Country,” May 1967.

3 This quotation and the following facts are taken from Michael Barone and Richard E. Cohen, The Almanac of American Politics, 2004 (National Journal, 2003).


About the Author

James Q. Wilson, a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY, is the Ronald Reagan professor of public policy at Pepperdine University in California.