News analysis: What next?

The expected defeat of five measures on a special election ballot Tuesday symbolizes more than just the next phase in California’s titanic budget struggles. It arguably marks the end of an era in California politics – the Schwarzenegger era.

More accurately, it may mark the end of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger as a compromising moderate willing to talk tough, but ultimately postpone the state’s hardest budget decisions.

It remains to be seen what type of political phoenix emerges from the ashes of the governor’s latest initiative defeat. Schwarzenegger has been known to reinvent himself after ballot box losses before. In 2005, after voters rejected Schwarzenegger’s conservative special election package, the governor tacked hard to the political left, overhauling his political and policy teams, and bringing on Democrat Susan Kennedy to be his chief of staff.

That was the abrupt end of Schwarzenegger’s romance with the state’s Republican Party base. But if the comments of Schwarzenegger’s political strategist Adam Mendelsohn are any indication, Republicans who liked the first version of Arnold Schwarzenegger might find something to like in Schwarzenegger 3.0.

“In some instances, a loss is as much a mandate as a win,” said Mendelsohn. “It’s clear that he carries a mandate to cut the California budget down to the bone.”

Senate leader Darrell Steinberg said he was "wary of such broad pronouncements," but acknowledges that cuts will have to be a big part of the next phase.

But how will this election change Schwarzenegger? If the governor’s first political incarnation, from 2003 through the 2005 special election, was as the larger-than-life Terminator-cum-governor, Schwarzenegger 2.0 was a kinder, gentler Arnold. The 2006-2009 Schwarzenegger backed away somewhat from personal insults of his legislative counterparts and flippant political stunts, sounding more moderate tones on his way to an easy reelection victory.

So what’s in store for the re-release of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger?

There may be a clue in the other story from Schwarzeneggerland Tuesday. The governor decided to skip Election Day in California all together, opting instead to appear at a White House photo op as President Obama announced new federal tailpipe emissions standards that Schwarzenegger was all too happy to take credit for.

Never mind for a moment that the standards being emulated were written in 2002 in a bill authored by then-Assemblywoman Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, and signed by Gov. Gray Davis. Schwarzenegger pressed the Bush administration to allow California to enact the standards, and that apparently was enough for the governor to claim ownership of the entire issue. And a White House photo op was clearly more pleasant than a voter rebuke.

The juxtaposition of the governor’s White House appearance Tuesday as the election measures he support went down to defeat 3,000 miles away crystallized the Schwarzenegger paradox. With this political popularity at record lows in California, Schwarzenegger still enjoys an immensely positive national political image.

As California pundits piled on the governor, calling his political ideas failures, CNBC’s Phil LeBeau breathlessly declared this week that “Schwarzenegger has become the face of the fight for lower tailpipe emissions.”

But how will Schwarzenegger’s growing image as the jolly green giant mesh with his next act as governor? The governor also met with the state’s Congressional delegation asking for federal permission to cut the state’s Medi-Cal budget by $750 million. Tomorrow, the governor will meet with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius asking for the same thing.

If we are to take his May budget revision on its face, we could be seeing the beginning of Schwarzenegger, the budget-axe wielding spending slasher.

Democrats don’t exactly agree with that assessment, and are already preparing to push back against the new, new Schwarzenegger. But Democrats, too, will be tested by Tuesday’s results. These measures belong as them as much as they do to Schwarzenegger, and Democrats have not yet outlined their plans for dealing with the state’s latest $20 billion deficit.

That work begins tomorrow, as Demcoratic leaders hold a 10 a.m. press conference at the Capitol, followed by a 3 p.m. meeting of the four legislative leaders and Gov. Schwarzenegger.

Surely, this year’s budget battle will be even more unpleasant than the 12-month budget fight that just concluded Tuesday night. But Schwarzenegger can take some solace – he’ll always have Washington.

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