Retirement Roulette

Don't Gamble With My Pension

Governor's in political trouble but don't write him off

By Thomas D. Elias

THE herd has turned on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Reporters who just a month or so ago were writing sycophantic so- called analyses labeling as "reforms' the measures he was hustling toward a November special election now have reversed themselves.

The measures usually are no longer called "government reforms,' but an attempted "overhaul.' Major newspapers suddenly feature stories portraying the muscular governor as a sort of pathetic has-been. Headlines proclaim that "Schwarzenegger Action Makeup Is Coming Off' and "Arnold Mania Fades' and "Governor Making a Quiet Retreat.'

Even his wife, journalist and author Maria Shriver, went on national television to say "I want him home,' all but announcing she doesn't want him trying for re-election to a full term in office next year.

That's the bandwagon effect, the flip side of the conformist journalism that portrayed Schwarzenegger as a heroic reformist savior for most of the last two years.

The turnabout is fueled in part by polls showing his public approval ratings once in the stratospheric 70 percent-plus range now have slid into the 40 percent category, a figure nearly identical to the percentage of Republicans among this state's registered voters.

Schwarzenegger earned this steep slide by implying again and again that anyone who disagrees with him on almost anything is a "special interest.' It's what he gets for arrogantly trying to impose his vision of California government without vetting it with thorough public debate.

But it's far too soon to write Schwarzenegger off as washed up or impotent, as the recent headlines imply.

For one thing, short of the president, no other political figure in America can commandeer free television time as easily as Schwarzenegger. If he wants onto "Larry King Live' or "Hardball' or any evening news show, all it takes is a phone call from one of his aides to a producer. Anyone previously lined up will be bumped.

That gives him an incredible bully pulpit, one Schwarzenegger has never been shy about using. Combined with the TV and radio commercials that can be bought with a political war chest exceeding $30 million and a personal fortune far greater than that, Schwarzenegger has more ability to communicate his message than any other figure on today's political landscape including the president.

And then there are the adoring crowds. Everywhere he goes, audiences treat him like the movie star he once was and can be again if he likes. Anything he says, even the most banal utterance, draws oohs and ahs and uncritical applause.

So Schwarzenegger still has appeal. But if he's to regain the almost unquestioned clout he enjoyed a few months ago, he'll have to mend a lot of fences. He could start with apologies to the people he once called "girlie men' and "losers' and those whose butts he threatened to kick. So far, they've turned the tables on him, at least temporarily thwarting his attempts to unilaterally end laws requiring employee lunch hours no more than six hours into a shift and a higher ratio of nurses to patients on hospital wards.

They've forced him to back off his plans to eliminate more than 100 state boards and commissions, and at least to delay his cherished public-employee pension changes.

And they're not letting up. Days after his pension backdown, the airwaves still brimmed with commercials featuring teachers charging Schwarzenegger with welshing on a debt to public schools, widows of police and firemen claiming he wants to deprive them of death benefits, nurses claiming he wants lousy patient care.

That's a tough combination to call "special interests,' as Schwarzenegger regularly does. Combined with his mid-March admission of prior steroid use, which revealed his musculature is at least partly phony, it was enough to drive a wedge between him and many of the voters who put him in office.

If Schwarzenegger reaches compromises with at least some of the people he's often called "special interests,' maybe he can parley his formidable television presence and marketing skill into a political revival. It's been done before.

But that can be tough. Says Garry South, once the leading adviser to the recalled ex-Gov. Gray Davis, "Once the people make up their minds about you in a negative way, it doesn't matter how often you go on TV. Every appearance just solidifies the negative impressions.'

South, who used plenty of TV ads in his futile effort to help Davis fend off the recall, ought to know.

Which means that while it's far too soon to write off a phenomenon like Schwarzenegger, the governor is certainly in deep political trouble.

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