True Lies

Random Lengths News | June 22, 2005
Governor Schwarzenegger kicked off his special election initiative campaign with “a despicable lie,” says leading public interest advocate Harvey Rosenfeld. The Governor ran into a firestorm of criticism when he returned to his alma mater, Santa Monica Community College, to give the commencement speech.

Schwarzenegger has raised community college fees 44 percent, while refusing to raise taxes on millionaires by a single penny—a microcosm of his reverse Robin-Hood politics that far exceeds his Republican predecessors. Both Ronald Reagan and Pete Wilson faced similar budget shortfalls, but worked with the legislature, combining budget cuts and targeted tax increases on the wealthiest Californians, to quickly close the shortfalls. Schwarzenegger has borrowed $15 billion and still has not closed the gap, due to his refusal to raise taxes on the most affluent two percent of Californians .

Trying to capitalize on his own failure, Schwarzenegger began campaigning by claiming that his budget shortfalls would lead Democratic legislators to gut Proposition 13, unless voters approved his initiatives.

“It’s a despicable lie to tell voters that Proposition 13 is involved in these initiatives,” said Harvey Rosenfeld, the driving force behind Proposition 103, which has saved Californians billions of dollars in car insurance since 1988. Under California law, propositions can only be altered by other voter-approved propositions (initiatives), not by legislators in Sacramento.

But Proposition 98, which protects education funding as the highest state budget priority, would be severely damaged by Schwarzenegger’s initiative noted Long Beach State Senator Alan Lowenthal. “He has what he calls ‘live within your means’... that’s a euphemism for destroying public education.”

Indeed, the initiative description on the Secretary of State’s website makes it as plain as bureaucratese ever gets. It begins: “Changes state minimum school funding requirements (Proposition 98), permitting suspension of minimum funding, but terminating repayment requirement.” Current law permits emergency suspension, but only if the shortfall is repaid. Schwarzenegger cut funding soon after taking office, but never restored the cuts. Then he has the gall to criticize the failures of public education.

The special election “represents a weakness on the part of Schwarzenegger,” said UC Berkeley linguist George Lakoff, whose book, Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate has been a surprise political bestseller. “A strong governor would not have to resort to this. He can’t win by the rules. He has to resort to changing them because he’s too weak. It’s a sign of his weakness that should be pointed out over and over again.”

Projecting images of weakness onto others is a key aspect of Republican politics, noted Stephen J. Ducat, a professor of psychology at New College of California and author of The Wimp Factor: Gender Gaps, Holy Wars, and the Politics of Anxious Masculinity. He identifies “femiphobia”—the fear of being feminized—as “part of the shaky foundation of conventional masculinity” that makes men constantly feel they have to prove themselves—at the expense of other men. The goal of the 2004 Republican National Convention “was to make John Kerry their woman,” Ducat said.

Schwarzenegger got the ball rolling, Ducat explained. “Arnold Schwarzenegger proclaimed that any guys anxious about the loss of jobs under the reign of George W. Bush were ‘economic girlie men.’ In other words, the Democratic candidates, who are always whining about pink slips, may as well be wearing pink slips.”

But he ran into a two-fold problem when confronting California’s nurses, Ducat explained. “One is that they’re identified as female, so it’s problematic to feminize them. There’s also the chivalrous ethic that makes it problematic to attack the nurses. It just looks bad.”

Facing a foe he couldn’t humiliate—for the reasons Ducat points out —Schwarzenegger stumbled badly. Before confronting the nurses, his popularity topped 60 percent. Since then, it’s plummeted to as low as 40 percent—girlie-man numbers in anyone’s book.

Schwarzenegger’s weakness is reflected in voter’s 2-1 disapproval of the special election he’s called, according to a May poll by the Public Policy Institute of California. He claims to be giving “the people” a chance to be heard—while directly contradicting their wishes.

His weakness is further underscored by the puniness of his three initiatives. He began with sweeping plans, but, says Lowenthal, “The scaling back was because the input that the governor received form the various constituencies... the ideas he put out were poorly thought out, poorly received and would not produce the results he expected.”

“The pension reform was not workable, and would cause greater problems and would take away benefits for people who had risked their lives. So he then marched away from that,” Lowenthal recalled. “He had introduced an ambitious education plan that was unworkable,” Lowenthal added. “It collapsed and all that is left is changing tenure.”

Lowenthal serves on the Senate education committee and had a front row seat at the Governor’s feeble legislative attempts.

“There was no meat on the skeleton, he had not talked to people. He wanted to do a merit pay proposal that rather than getting more people to go to low performing schools, less people would have gone there . . . instead of being rewarded, they would have been penalized.”

Lakoff warns that, “The attack on tenure in schools is a slippery slope operation, because it’s going to lead to an attack on tenure in the universities,” which Republicans have already begun to float nationwide. This will be disastrous for California, Lakoff points out, since our higher education system “has made our state prosperous.”

Lowenthal is also working on bipartisan redistricting legislation, along with Bakersfield Republican Roy Ashburn. It would establish a non-partisan system, but not until after the next census. Schwarzenegger’s approach is “too poorly thought out,” Lowenthal says, “based on census data six to eight years old” that would amount to “a Texas-style power grab.”

The big picture, according to Lowenthal, is that Schwarzenegger instinctively turns to blaming people—nurses, teachers, firefighters, legislators—rather than listening, learning and trying to understand complex situations.

On the education front, Lowenthal said, “There’s a race to the bottom—we are rapidly approaching states such as Mississippi and Alabama. We are losing support services, libraries, aides in classrooms, that’s what affects learning.”

On the legislative front, his bullying approach is “very discouraging,” Lowenthal observed. “It turns the legislative process into an adversarial sporting event rather than trying to develop the best legislation for the people of California. That’s not why the people elected us.”

Schwarzenegger’s budget initiative would institutionalize this dysfunction, by undermining the balance of legislative and gubernatorial power. With a 2/3 vote needed to pass budgets, there is already strong pressure to compromise and negotiate. The proposed initiative would not just gut education funding, it would grant governors unchecked power when deadlocks were reached—which some believe would actually encourage deadlocks by minority party members.

This is all a far cry from what initiatives were supposed to be, says Richard J. Ellis, the man who literally wrote the book on it called Democratic Delusions: The Initiative Process in America. Ellis says that initiatives failed to work as intended from the very beginning—but sometimes recovered and sometimes got much worse.

“The delusion is that an initiative is an unfiltered pure version of the people’s will and somehow the people speak more clearly or purely through the initiative process than the legislative process,” Ellis explained. “It ignores who controls the forces surrounding the working of the initiative process. In California as in most states, it’s the special interests and the politicians.”

The initiative got its start in Switzerland. But there, it’s reserved for major, constitutional matters, and most initiatives are withdrawn after legislatures respond to the pressure by carefully crafting legislation that meets conflicting popular demands.

In America, there were two early visions. One was as a safety valve, “The gun behind the door,” was the image that was used, Ellis said, “used to clean up the corruption,” like the railroads in California. In some states, it actually works that way. “But, in states like California and Oregon,” he said, “it’s not the gun behind the door. It’s the Uzi on Main Street.”

The other vision—embraced by labor activists and populists alike—was that initiatives would radically transform politics and sweep away the power of wealthy special interests. But with wealthy donors funding Schwarzenegger’s initiatives, that’s not how things have turned out.

“The idea was that this would be something different, something other than politics as usual,” Ellis said, summarizing the hopes of those early visionaries.

“Really this is politics as usual picking whatever instruments are at hand to beat on the other side. He’s doing exactly the opposite of what they envisioned.” In the final analysis Schwarzenegger’s use of the initiative process, while sitting as governor with all the power of the veto, is the antithesis of what the people envisioned when the populist reforms were created. Once again the tools of democracy are being used by those who least believe in the process, while being heralded as populist reform.

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