A Unified Theory of Schwarzenegger…

In pointing out some of the inconsistencies in Governor Schwarzenegger’s current letter on federal health reform–where he preaches “shared responsibility” and compromise but then draws a hard line of opposing against any shared responsibility of the state of California, even of maintaining existing obligations–I am reminded that figuring out this Governor is a full time job.

One person who has taken on that tough job is journalist Joe Matthews, who recently had a post on a conservative website pretending to reveal what’s going on in “Arnold’s Brain.” This isn’t as much of a conceit as it may seem: as someone who has literally written a book on Schwarzenegger, many of Matthews’ musings seem to come from the Governor, or at least his inner circle. Beyond his sources, he also seems sympathetic to Schwarzenegger, trying to give the Governor the benefit of the doubt. Earlier this year, he was on a radio program suggesting that the Governor’s proposals to eliminate major programs like Healthy Families was simply a way to build the case for revenues–something that certainly never panned out. His recent entry, in the voice of Arnold, also seeks to put a positive spin to defend the indefensible cuts he has made:

My personality and celebrity is so big that the media, or what’s left of it, is missing the real story.

Here’s the tale in a nutshell: I tried to give Democrats what they say they want–universal health care and higher taxes. I did this at huge political cost to myself. And they said no…

You’ll forgive me for not committing political suicide a third time. The foreheads say I went back to the right in the last two months. Excuse me, but what other choice did they leave me?

And so now, when we get this terrible budget, full of health cuts that I hate (remember: I’m the guy who put my neck on the line for universal coverage), this is somehow my fault? You want someone to blame, foreheads? Try a f—–g mirror.

According to this take, the Governor really wants to do good and is really opposed to cutting children’s coverage, he’s just misunderstood. Matthews uses two examples that Health Access California was intimately familiar with: health reform in 2007 (which we ultimately were in support of the Governor’s effort with AB x1 1), and Proposition 1A in the May 19th special election (which we were in early opposition).

The broad brush that this voice of “Arnold” uses for “liberals” makes little sense, since there was a diverse response on both issues: I know that for both issues, our Health Access California coalition vote was not unanimous, and we had good friends and allies on both sides of both issues. This is true of legislators as well: much to our chagrin, the Senate Democrats that helped kill health reform in 2007 were his strongest supporters for Proposition 1A in 2009. But this voice of “Arnold” seems to forget some things as well:

* As someone who supported AB x1 1, I agree with the assessment that California lost an opportunity when health reform stalled here, not just to raise revenues for expanded health coverage, but also to influence the national debate in a positive direction. But the Governor does bear some responsibility of his own, for example by delaying negotiations until key initiative and legislative deadlines passed. And by driving such a hard bargain on key affordability issues, he splintered the coalition that was needed to win in the legislature and on the ballot. He deserves some credit for coming to the issue, but shouldn’t escape all blame.

* Proposition 1A presented health and human service advocates with the option of temporary taxes and revenues for only two additional years, but at the price of a permanent spending cap. Some proponents may have characterized it as a “soft” spending cap, but many others had different analyses–as is shown by the current debate over whether the Governor had authority to make additional cuts last week. Prop 1A was much less about increasing revenues than his second attempt at the legacy of a spending cap, in the rhetoric of “live within your means.”

The main problem with Matthews’ piece is he uses only two data points. As the San Jose Mercury News editorial board pointed out, the Governor’s history on the issue of children’s coverage–to take just one example–is far more spotty. “What other choice did I have?” can be answered with a long litany of his actions or inactions, from his very first budget proposal to a veto of AB772(Chan/Escutia) in 2005, a universal children’s coverage bill, to his stance on Proposition 86–which was within 2 percentage points of passing:

Schwarzenegger came into office promising to make universal coverage for children a priority. Instead, he tried to cap Healthy Families in his first year in Sacramento and opposed Proposition 86 in 2006, which would have insured children through an increase in the tobacco tax…

Matthews’ piece seems ill-timed, since it was only a few days before another, devastating data point: the Governor chose to unilaterally take another $50 million out of Healthy Families, on top of another $144 million cut he insisted on. So he has been far more consistent in seeking to cut children’s coverage, and opposing taxes and revenues that would sustain such cuts.

What’s the explanation for the latest cut? Willie Brown wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle, “I suspect his final cuts to children’s health care and AIDS programs were made more out of anger at Democrats than sound thinking. They will haunt him for the remainder of his term.”

Steve Harmon and Mike Zapler of MediaNews (such as the Oakland Tribune) notes that he seems to enjoy his role of budget slasher: “Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger seemed to relish the task of reining in government spending, almost as if it was another cinematic role in which to star. With gusto, he launched blistering attacks against fraud in the welfare system, demanding that those abusing the system be kicked out. He unwaveringly stood his ground on taxes, never allowing Democrats to seriously consider including them in negotiations….” Let’s not even get into the whole thing with him waving around a knife.

As the Los Angeles Times editorial board puts it, “Funny, isn’t it, that when the governor scours the state budget for waste, fraud and abuse, he only seems to find it in programs for the old, the young, the poor and others unable to raise campaign funds or muster political opposition.”

Matthews attempted to find a unified theory of Schwarzenegger, but there’s an easier narrative available: as a down-the-line corporate conservative who has consistently gotten high marks vetoing proposals the Chamber of Commerce doesn’t like throughout his service, but who had a moderate moment right before and after his re-election campaign. He toned down his rhetoric after being pushed back by the legislature from budget proposals to cut everything from the Lanternman Act to Healthy Families, and then after being rejected by the electorate on a budget spending cap and other efforts in a special election. After accolades for his 2006 pre-election concessions on global warming, minimum wage, and prescription drugs (that last reform for which we applauded him for signing and yet has never been implemented), the Governor sought a continuation of that national attention, and health reform was merely the means to that end. The budget crisis has allowed him cover to impose the conservative agenda that in any other time would be politically impossible.

I have no idea if that’s a correct analysis of the Governor. But at some level, it doesn’t matter. What the Governor thinks in his brain or feels in his heart doesn’t matter. It is what he does and doesn’t do.

And right now, his Administration is beginning to deny hundreds of thousands of children health coverage, among many other things. He had other options and choices from day one to the present. He still does, and maybe we’ll see yet another version of our Governor in his remaining time. For the sake of California, I hope so.

Health Access California promotes quality, affordable health care for all Californians.
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