Gov. Weather Vane

WASHINGTON — If John McCain becomes president, he will be confronted by a Congress with significantly larger Democratic majorities than today's — majorities furious about high hopes dashed by an eighth Republican victory in 11 presidential elections. And if the normal pattern of off-year elections obtains in 2010, those majorities will expand. So McCain would have to deal with a hostile legislature for four years, as Arnold Schwarzenegger has done for almost five years. For that reason, and because these two self-styled postpartisan, reach-across-the-aisle mavericks admire one another, it is pertinent to survey Schwarzenegger's governorship of one-eighth of America's population.

Becoming governor in 2003, when Gov. Gray Davis was recalled, Schwarzenegger promised frugality. But even adjusting for inflation and population growth, spending has increased 20 percent under Schwarzenegger.

The $102-billion general fund budget is $15-billion in deficit. This year Sacramento will swallow 9.58 percent of personal income, up from 8.78 under Davis, who was recalled because … does anyone remember?

In January, Schwarzenegger proclaimed: "I will not raise taxes on the people of California." Then he proposed raising the state's sales tax — the nation's highest (7.25 percent statewide with local additions) — a full penny on the dollar, unless (mostly low-income) Californians vastly increase the amount of money they squander on the state's poorly performing lottery, thereby enabling the state to borrow against projected future lottery earnings. Now Schwarzenegger favors a "temporary" sales tax increase.

Schwarzenegger began governing as a Republican, but public employees' unions easily defeated his four principled proposals — reform of public employees' pensions, merit pay for teachers, automatic spending cuts when the budget is not balanced, and redistricting to be done by retired judges. So he made a Democratic operative his chief of staff and has governed accordingly.

When he ran for governor, desperate conservatives rallied 'round, reassured by reports that he had read Milton Friedman. But his governance has been, as populism usually is, both incoherent and predictable, a product of his gut and gusts of popular opinion.

When funding stem cell research was the indicator of advanced thinking, he helped burden the state with $6-billion more in bond costs (including $200-million a year in interest for 30 years) to fund it. In 2003, Gov. Davis signed a law requiring employers with 20 or more workers to provide them with health insurance or pay into a state fund that would. Citizen Schwarzenegger called it a "job-killing health-care tax" and supported the referendum that repealed it. But Gov. Schwarzenegger, scrambling aboard the "universal coverage" bandwagon, proposed a pay-or-play mandate on employers with 10 or more workers: Provide insurance or pay a 4 percent payroll tax. Because imposition of new taxes requires a two-thirds legislative majority, Schwarzenegger called his proposed $12-billion in new taxes (including those on the gross revenues of doctors and hospitals) "levies" or "fees."

"It's not a tax" because "you take it for health care," not general revenues. Those from whom it would have been taken did not appreciate the distinction. Real Republicans helped kill the plan.

Today, politicians attempt to prove their gravitas and virtue by trying to fine-tune the planet's thermostat, so Schwarzenegger favors loading the state's sputtering economy (its 7.3 percent unemployment rate is 28 percent above the national rate) with taxes, fees and regulations. Nevada and Arizona thank him for the businesses he drives their way.

California Republicans have lost seven consecutive U.S. Senate races, hold only 19 of 53 congressional seats, have not controlled the state Senate since 1970, have controlled the assembly for just one year (1996) since 1970 and have bleaker prospects today than when they plighted their troth to the action hero who says: "Look, I cut to the chase. I know what the Democrats like, and I know what the Republicans like. So, I say let's meet somewhere in the middle."

But Gov. Weather Vane, as the Orange County Register calls him, usually finds the middle in the middle of the Democrats' legislative caucus.

The other seven-eighths of the American population should understand that what Californians are enduring has a name: "postpartisanship." Somewhere, Gray Davis is smiling.

George Will's e-mail address is georgewill@washpost.com.

© Washington Post Writers Group

Gov. Weather Vane 08/31/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 2, 2010 2:40pm]

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