Arnold has the right script

Spending a few days in California always gives you a new perspective. While the newspapers, talk radio and local television outlets are covering President Bush’s campaign to reform Social Security and the debate over his budget, that’s not where the real heat is.

Spending a few days in California always gives you a new perspective. While the newspapers, talk radio and local television outlets are covering President Bush’s campaign to reform Social Security and the debate over his budget, that’s not where the real heat is.

Here on the left coast, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s (R) four-part plan to remake the political landscape has everyone’s attention. The battle has been engaged in a way that could inform both friends and foes of the president’s proposals. The governor has chosen a message strategy that draws a much sharper distinction between him and his opponents than the president seems willing to do. For Schwarzenegger, this is nothing less than a battle between the forces of darkness and light.

The governor’s strategy has evolved from his path to office. He led a citizen revolt against an unpopular, discredited administration. He honored his campaign pledge to solve California’s financial crisis with a $15 billion bond that voters wildly supported in a special election. Last November, virtually every ballot measure he endorsed was passed — and his approval ratings actually went up after the vote, something almost unheard of when governors put their reputations on the line to support ballot issues.

Ballot measures have long been suspect in the opinion of serious political observers. David Broder, one of the most thoughtful political analysts in America, wrote in his book Democracy Derailed (Harcourt, 2000) that “a new form of government is spreading in the United States. It is alien to the spirit of the Constitution and its careful system of checks and balances.” Most state and federal elected officials in California would agree. Not the governor.

When he laid out his four-part proposal reforming California’s political system, Schwarzenegger called on support from “the people. I need your help” to fight the politicians and special interests, he said. He called for redistricting reform, citing the fact that of 153 congressional and legislative seats on the November ballot, not one changed parties. “That is not democracy,” the governor insisted.

He wanted broader powers to restructure government, a spending limit that matched state income, merit pay for teachers and replacement of the state retirement system with 401(k) plans. His proposals ignited immediate and fiery responses from public-employee unions and incumbent politicians.

Incumbent Republicans and Democrats oppose his plan to turn redistricting over to a panel of retired judges — and do it in time for the 2006 election. Some insiders say GOP members of the congressional delegation oppose him 4-1. Teachers unions have launched a statewide radio advertising campaign against his proposals. State employee unions have nurses out in front with an “Air Arnold” attack featuring an airplane dragging a banner with the legend “Don’t be a Big Business Bully” over every event the governor attends, including his own Super Bowl party.

Opponents cite polls showing the governor’s support slipping. He’s being attacked for focusing on government reorganization instead of education and crafting his proposals to help Wall Street and his big-business backers. (An independent committee to help put the governor’s agenda on the ballot is led by the presidents of the California Chamber of Commerce and the California Business Roundtable. Disclosure: My partner, Rick Claussen, is managing that effort, as he did the $15 billion bond campaign.)

The lines are being drawn in California. The governor’s message, crafted by media consultant Mike Murphy and positioned by strategist Marty Wilson, is simply one of us versus them. The governor’s team and his opponents know voters see the legislative leadership as dysfunctional.

“We know the governor is more popular than the Legislature,” said Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez while vowing a fight to the bitter end. Schwarzenegger’s message is simple but aggressive: These politicians have created “no lose” districts so they don’t have to be responsive to their constituents. Sacramento has become a lobbyists playground. Special-interest money determines policy. The only way to achieve change is to go around the politicians and special interests via the ballot box.

Bush doesn’t have that option. Still, he might be well-advised to take a look at those core messages from California’s governor. Schwarzenegger has positioned his reforms in stark and simple terms. It is he and the people against a dark cabal of special interests and powerful politicians. It’s a plot that’s made for blockbuster movies and just may help this governor change the political landscape in California for decades to come.

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