Democracy run amok

One of my favorite features in this newspaper is "Word on the Street," where I get to find out what South Philadelphians think about a particular issue. The Aug. 14 survey was especially interesting.

Six of our neighbors were asked which candidate they favored for governor of California. Four favored Arnold Schwarzenegger; one, the beleaguered current governor, Gray Davis; and one astute woman admitted she didn’t know enough about the situation and thought it should be someone with political experience.

What were the reasons given for favoring Arnold? "It looks like he’s the best candidate, and I’m sure he has money for the campaign." "He’s a great actor, and I’m sure he’ll make a good governor." "He’s strong and powerful … He’s intelligent and good looking." (Memo to Iraqis: We never claimed democracy was perfect.)

I’d love to have asked these people what specifically they think Arnold would do to address California’s problems. Of course nobody knows yet, nor are they likely to know by the time they have to vote. This is not meant to denigrate the people in our poll. I venture to say that many Californians are answering similar polls the same way. (Memo to Rush Limbaugh: The cult of Hollywood celebrity is not confined to liberal Democrats.)

No one with the possible exception of his wife, Maria Shriver, knows much about Schwarzenegger’s political views. Arnold has hired a Democrat, Warren Buffet, for economic policy advice. Does this mean Schwarzenegger might favor increasing taxes to help resolve his state’s staggering deficit? Not necessarily. Buffet said in a recent interview in the Wall Street Journal that California’s property taxes needed to be higher. He criticized Proposition 13, the one that limits property taxes in the state.

However, Arnold’s spokesman rushed to rebut Buffet, claiming Arnold is "a big fan and admirer of Proposition 13." Then the Schwarzenegger camp went out and got Rob Lowe, the kind of Hollywood activist who drives conservatives nuts, to help recruit other Hollywood types to the campaign. Only a malicious columnist would hope that Barbra Streisand and Sean Penn join in supporting Arnold.

Some conservatives compare Schwarzenegger to Ronald Reagan, who went from acting into California’s gubernatorial mansion and ultimately into the White House. Memories are short. Reagan did not jump from Bedtime for Bonzo to political fame. He was the head of the actors union during difficult times. He gave political speeches all over the country as a spokesperson for General Electric.

Whatever you might think of Reagan’s views, you knew where he stood on the major issues of the day when he ran for governor. His leadership ability was already a well-known quantity and his ability to communicate beyond parallel. Contrast that with Schwarzenegger, whose main appeal is as a cartoonish superhero on the big screen. The positive descriptions given by our poll respondents are based on his movie roles, not on anything we really know about him. At this stage, Arnold is much more Jesse Ventura than Ronald Reagan.

California has become a punch line for Jay Leno. And I don’t mean because of Schwarzenegger, who, after all, is doing what many of these Hollywood celebrities have convinced themselves is their true mission in life — to save us little people from ourselves. Electing Gray Davis twice is enough of a reason to put the entire state into a psycho ward. What do they know now about Davis that they didn’t know nine months ago when they reelected him? What, they didn’t know he was a self-serving politician whose main goal is to further his political career?

This is a state that has some crazy proposition on the ballot in every election. There is no political center in California, just the lunatic fringes on either end of the political spectrum. And the lunatics are abusing democracy to run the asylum. The situation is so bad that only a combination of steep budget cuts and tax increases can bring the budget out of a sea of red ink. Unless the economy revisits the Clinton boom years — and that is unlikely as long as the current resident in the White House keeps running big deficits — California becomes a lose-lose proposition.

Despite all the hype, Schwarzenegger is not really in a position to become the next political superstar, if only because as a naturalized citizen he cannot aspire to become president. California may be the next stop for Arnold, but it will also be his last stop.

Schwarzenegger faces a hostile Democratic legislature and a bloated budget where much of the spending is already mandated.

Winning is not the problem for Arnold; governing California is. It’s like being in the last reel and the cyborgs are gaining.