Arnie loses his hero status with voters after string of gaffes
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Arnie loses his hero status with voters after string of gaffes

London Independent | April 12, 2005
By Andrew Gumbel

Most politicians would regard a 17-month honeymoon as an unimaginable gift from the heavens. But, in the case of Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose aura of invincibility has been part of his public image since he first ran for governor of California, the end of the honeymoon is not only proving a letdown. It is rapidly transforming him from public hero to public enemy and raising questions about whether he has a political future at all.

Having campaigned two years ago as "the people's governor", Mr Schwarzenegger now faces a barrage of opposition from those very same people who voted for him so enthusiastically - nurses, firefighters, teachers, parents, recent immigrants - almost all of whom he has managed to alienate through ill-chosen words or over-provocative policy prescriptions.

Yesterday, the governor's staff was furiously backtracking from a speech Mr Schwarzenegger gave to a newspaper association convention in San Francisco, in which he urged the federal government to "close the borders" with Mexico to put an end to illegal immigration.

Not only did that statement put him considerably to the right of President Bush, who has proved quite progressive when it comes to managing and protecting the immigrant labour force. It was also widely interpreted as pandering to an extreme, quasi-racist position entirely out of step with the Californian mainstream. The fact Mr Schwarzenegger is an immigrant did not help matters.

It was the latest in a series of gaffes and gratuitously insulting remarks that Mr Schwarzenegger has made in public recently. The state's nurses are still fuming at his vow to "kick their butts" because they want to increase nurse-to-patient ratios. And the state's Democrats, who run most things outside of the governor's office, have broken off their once cosy relationship with him, not least because he accused them of being "girlie men".

Worse, in his efforts to rein in California's runaway budget deficits, Mr Schwarzenegger has proposed cuts that not only damage the interests of his Democratic Party rivals - principally, public sector unions - but also eat directly into his support base.

Parents at California schools, who remember him pledging to protect education at all costs, are appalled at a proposal to slash one of the main planks of the state's school spending infrastructure - in effect, cutting resources for schools at a time when California is already near the bottom of the national heap in educational services.

Mr Schwarzenegger's approach on spending has been to propose draconian measures and then challenge the Democrat-controlled legislature to pass them, with the threat that if they don't he will go straight to the people and use his personal charisma to win the argument in a public referendum.

That strategy is backfiring. Mr Schwarzenegger has talked about calling a special election at the end of the year to try to ram through a series of anti-union measures - privatising the state pension system, stripping teachers of some of their tenure privileges, and so on.

Not only have these measures appalled public opinion - Mr Schwarzenegger's once sky-high approval rating has dipped below 50 per cent - the whole idea has come under fire because the special election would cost the state $70m at a time when every belt is being tightened.

California's Democrats are starting to smell blood, and revelled in anti-Arnie rhetoric at a convention last weekend. Mr Schwarzenegger and his wife have dropped hints he might not seek re-election next year - something that, until recently, was taken as a given.

"He's attacking firefighters, nurses, teachers and cops," read a banner draped over the convention floor. "Are you next?"

Mr Schwarzenegger is, however, a consummate political player and it would be a mistake to write him off too quickly.

The great unmentioned issue looming over his budget fights is, of course, taxation. As a classically Republican fiscal conservative, he is refusing to be the first person to propose raising taxes - which is historically the way that even Republican governors have resolved California's cashflow problems.

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