In the wake of the Governor’s special election debacle, Sacramento’s Monday
morning quarterbacks of all political stripes seem to have agreed on one
piece of advice to help the governor pick up the pieces: be a centrist.
But governing from the middle isn’t as easy as it looks. Ask Gray Davis.
Davis started his first term with an aggressive education reform strategy.
It was aimed at the moderate base of voters that vaulted him into the
governorship. Among its key elements: the controversial high school exit
exam and outcome-based accountability programs.
The Davis education package–far more sweeping that Schwarzenegger’s
so-called “reforms”–was passed despite grumbling from many key
constituencies on the left. Only election afterglow helped Davis overpower a
reluctant legislature and labor interests to enact the reforms.
Davis also sought “third way” solutions on other thorny left vs. right
issues. Among them: labor, water, and health care. Ever the incrementalist,
Davis tried to find the center on issues important to Democratic
constituencies without angering the Republican base.
But by trying to please everyone, Davis pleased no one.
Frustrated by 16 years of a Republican grip on the horseshoe, Democrats
complained his centrist ideas didn’t go far enough. Meanwhile, a more
conservative Republican Caucus whacked at Davis from the right.
Schwarzenegger’s few attempts to find middle ground have run into the same
bipartisan buzzsaw. His much-vaunted “Million Solar Roofs Initiative”
received only a handful of Republican votes in the Senate (as well as
opposition from his usual business allies) before limping to the Assembly.
In the Assembly, Democrats added labor-friendly language that Schwarzenegger
disapproved. Republicans sat on their hands, and the bill died.
If Schwarzenegger switches gears yet again–from his failed Grover
Norquist-inspired thinking back to California centrism–he is likely to run
into many of the same problems he encountered with his solar initiative.
Democrats are itching to press their own agenda this year, focused on many
of the same bread-and-butter issues of the past two sessions: children’s
health care, an increase in the minimum wage, and affordable prescription
drugs. Emboldened by the Governor’s special election flop, they are in no
mood to embrace a “Schwarzenegger Lite” agenda that will include scaled-back
versions of their legislation. Given the Governor’s two year track record of
broken promises (among many legislators, he has as much creditability as a
used car salesman), it is likely that Democrats will push put their agenda
on his desk instead of making deals that they fear will broken down the
What’s more, the Governor may have more problems on his right flank than his
left. What’s been not-so-affectionately called the “Knuckle Dragging Caucus”
that dominates the Republican minorities in both chambers is unlikely to
budge on taxes or fees (or even a spending hike on the popular middle-class
issue of education).
These Republican firebrands have been muted during the past two years on the
few moderate elements of the Schwarzenegger agenda. That’s largely because
of the perceived clout of the governor at the ballot box. But with the
wipeout of the Governor’s special election initiatives coupled Governor’s 0
for 9 success rate in the 2004 legislative races, it won’t be surprising to
see right-wing Republicans no longer attached to the Governor’s hip.
Establishment conservatives aren’t likely to cover Schwarzenegger’s back
either. Senate Republican Leader Dick Ackerman, for example, already has
fired warning shots after the Governor tested the waters for a $50 billion
It also remains to be seen how much of a stink big business will put up if
the Governor backs off his conservative agenda. Even after last week’s
tongue-lashing from Schwarzenegger consultant Mike Murphy, the Chamber of
Commerce still holds sway over legislative Republicans. And while it’s true
that the Chamber provided lukewarm support for the Davis centrist proposals,
it was only because its backing of them helped temper more onerous
As Texas Railroad Commissioner Jim Hightower once said: “The middle of the
road is for yellow lines and dead armadillos.” Schwarzenegger will need to
be politically deft in charting a center course with lawmakers to avoid a
similar fate. So far he’s shown no sign of that.