Teaching New Dogs Old Tricks

DAZED AND AMAZED: If the road to hell is paved
with good intentions, maybe the reverse is also true. Maybe we can
get somewhere better — if not actually good — by riding the
coattails of overweening egomania and shameless opportunism. I know
it sounds unlikely, but no matter what, you gotta have hope. I say
this having watched Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger Tuesday night as
he squinted nonstop for 24 minutes into a glorious future,
delivering his much-heralded State of the State address to the
California Legislature.

The fact is, I never liked Arnold the actor that much, and even
less Arnold the politician. Like many, I angrily dismissed the
recall campaign that brought Arnold to office as a cynical
manipulation expertly crafted to galvanize the infantile rage of
California voters by promising adolescent solutions to the age-old
problems bedeviling the state. It wasn’t that I harbored any
affection for former governor Gray Davis, but I never thought it
was fair to blame him because every energy company in the nation
got rich overnight after screwing California rate payers. At the
time, I remember betting that the people of California would see
through such cheap theatrics. I’m still paying off some of those
wagers. But on Tuesday night, there Arnold was — the former action
hero standing on steel crutches and talking about climbing the
proverbial mountain.

Sacramento’s undisputed überdog pledged not merely to get health
insurance to the 6.5 million people in the state without it,
even — and especially — the illegal children of illegal immigrants.
He was going to fix the state’s prison system, currently a
simmering race riot poised to explode at a moment’s notice, with
$10.9 billion. There’d be billions for more schools and more
classrooms. Ever the messianic megalomaniac, Arnold vowed that
California would lead not just the nation, but the entire
world — including China — pioneering new technologies and market
solutions to global warming.

Given the immediate and imminent threat global warming posed to
California’s water supplies, the gubernator pledged to start
building two new dams, at a cost of $6 billion. In recent months,
“centrism” and “bipartisanship” have become all the political rage.
Such commonplace labels are not sufficiently outsized for Arnold,
who describes himself now as “post-partisan.” This calls to mind
similar sounding — though equally mystifying — labels, such as
“post-industrial,” “post-modern,” and “Post Toasties.” As part of
this post-partisan agenda, Arnold promised to redraw the political
maps that give the parties in power such a lock that, as he joked,
“There was more turnover in the Hapsburg Monarchy than the
California system.” By the speech’s end, I confess I was humming
along. And if I had a hydrogen-powered Hummer, I would have floored
it into Arnold’s rosy-fingered dawn. But instead, I got on my
20-year-old bicycle and pedaled home, careful to avoid the potholes
and skunks that greeted me on the way.

Like I say, I wish Arnold well. But the extent to which he
succeeds or fails will depend solely on one key weapon: special
effects. That’s how he did it in Hollywood and that’s how he’ll
have to do it in Sacramento. That’s because all of what Arnold has
proposed costs zillions of dollars. This is a big problem because
the state doesn’t have it and Arnold campaigned for office almost
exclusively on the promise he would not increase taxes. How do you
raise money without imposing new taxes? It turns out it’s not all
that hard. You just borrow it. Forget about fiscal frugality and
paying as you go.

We can now max out our credit cards and stick the grandkids with
the tab. When the bill comes due we’ll all be dead, so who cares?
This approach has become the new creed with those moderate-minded
Republicans who still want government to deliver the goods but are
squeamish about the T-word. Unfortunately for Arnold, California’s
Republican Party is still dominated by rigid right-wingers. I was
chatting with noted Arnoldologist Joe Matthews — who will be
speaking at Victoria Hall this Thursday night — and he pointed out
that California’s Republican warlords are righteously pissed,
bitterness and betrayal being their watchwords. They long for the
good old days when Arnold rescinded a bill that gave illegal
immigrants the ability to obtain California drivers’ licenses and
revoked a sneaky new tax passed by Gray Davis in the form of a
vehicle registration surcharge. Now Arnold is not just allowing the
kids of illegal immigrants to obtain health insurance — anathema to
the right — but he’s making it mandatory.

To pay for this ambitious new health plan, the gubernator has
proposed a tax every bit as devious as anything Davis ever
envisioned. While Arnold’s spin doctors insist that businesses,
doctors, and hospitals will be assessed new “fees” to pay for this
program, to the naked eye, such coerced exactions are
indistinguishable from taxes. To contain the explosion of spit now
radiating from his party’s epicenter, Arnold has proposed a couple
of sops. He’s hoping the two new dams he’s proposed will keep a
couple of strategically important Republican leaders happy enough
to clam up, even though there’s no way the dams will ever get
built. The enviros will make sure of that. And to appease those
Republicans who can’t stomach the idea of foreign-born children
getting flu shots, Arnold has suggested slashing welfare
expenditures by about half-a-billion bucks. But the Dems have vowed
those cuts will never happen, and they have the votes to back it
up. Given that Arnold needs a two-thirds majority to get much done,
the state’s right-wing Republicans — however numerically small they
are — are big enough to block Arnold’s way. And — as Matthews
suggested — if Arnold’s not careful, it’s not beyond the right-wing
fringe to launch a recall against the governor. Personally, I find
that prospect too tidy to be even plausible. But Matthews cautioned
it wouldn’t take all that many signatures to launch such a
campaign. As for California voters being too smart to fall for
this, I think my past betting success speaks for itself.

Should this scenario ever unfold, it would conclusively prove
that California is, in fact, totally ungovernable. That’s why I’m
rooting so hard for the special effects. Like I say, you gotta have
hope

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