Arnold's ready for Act Three

For a year after Arnold Schwarzenegger rode his Hummer up the Capitol steps in Sacramento, the nation’s political media declared him invincible. He drove Gray Davis from office, successfully campaigned for the passage of massive bond measures to bail California out of debt, captivated a national audience at the Republican convention and had groups lobbying for a constitutional amendment that would allow him to run for president.

For a year after Arnold Schwarzenegger rode his Hummer up the Capitol steps in Sacramento, the nation’s political media declared him invincible.

He drove Gray Davis from office, successfully campaigned for the passage of massive bond measures to bail California out of debt, captivated a national audience at the Republican convention and had groups lobbying for a constitutional amendment that would allow him to run for president. Not bad reviews for an obscure bodybuilder who reinvented himself as movie star and politician.

The governor started this political season on a roll as well. He called on citizens to draft and send to the ballot four sweeping reform measures that would literally change the political power structure of California. Political observers, including this one, predicted his “year of reform” could significantly alter California politics for years to come.

Well, politics in California have always had a bit of a Hollywood story line. And when a real movie star plays the lead, whether his name is Reagan or Schwarzenegger, you can expect a few plot twists along the way.

The first came when Democratic Attorney General Bill Lockyear interpreted the governor’s public-pension-reform proposal as denying benefits to families of public-safety officers injured or killed in the line of duty. The political calendar didn’t give the governor enough time to challenge the interpretation. After weeks of public protests from first responders and their families, Schwarzenegger asked that circulation of the measure be “suspended” while his team looked at ways to make clear they never intended to deny such claims.

The setback, combined with well-organized protests against the governor, prompted a reversal of media coverage on the Schwarzenegger year of reform. Suddenly the state press swarmed to negative coverage of the governor and his political agenda.

Within days, reporters from national papers such as The Washington Post and The New York Times piled on as well. Some both suggested that Maria Shriver, the governor’s wife, was being recruited to rehabilitate his image and at the same time had her suggesting he would not run for reelection. In the past week, broadcast and print stories have predicted that one short term may be Arnold’s last — that he’ll either voluntarily step aside or is so mortally wounded he can’t win reelection.

In Hollywood, this is how you script Act Two. First you set up the hero as a hardworking, well-intentioned and dedicated protagonist. Then you throw all manner of obstacles in his way, including personal flaws, bad decisions or betrayal by his confidants and a brilliant counterattack by his opponents. The point is to present the hero with a seemingly insurmountable obstacle.

Folks, it is far too early to write off the governator.

You may have surmised I’ve spent a week on the left coast absorbing all that is wild and unique about California. And, as I’ve disclosed in the past, my business partner Rick Claussen is managing the citizen effort to bring the governor’s reform agenda to the ballot. Both facts give me some insight into the negative press coverage and what is really going on with the ballot-issue campaigns.

The measure that would turn the drawing of legislative boundaries over to a panel of retired judges and ask them to complete the task before the next election is close to qualification for the ballot. Merit pay for teachers, tenure reform and the so-called “live within our means” budget-balancing proposal are also on track to meet qualification deadlines. Even the measure requiring that unions have members’ authorization to use their dues for political purposes will likely qualify, although without the governor’s specific endorsement.

Over the next few weeks, it is likely all those measures, now being proclaimed dead on arrival by many political observers, will make it to the ballot. If that happens, the governor who is now being portrayed as mortally wounded is likely to make a heroic recovery as Act Three opens. Just for a moment imagine the dramatic shaft of light as Arnold rises to his full stature, the soaring musical score as he focuses clearly on the future and the powerful surge of the crowd as voters unite behind him to vanquish the special interests that came so close to defeating his crusade.

That’s the image Arnold partisans have in mind. That’s the potential promised by the polls. And that’s the kind of theatrical recovery Americans love in their movies and, I would suggest, in their political theater as well.

Bottom line, the battered hero in Act Two almost always emerges victorious at the end of Act Three. Don’t write Arnold out of this movie yet.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants GC Strategic Advocacy. E-mail: bgoddard@thehill.com