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Calif. King makes political reform into a blockbuster

Goliath took the stage in Sacramento on Wednesday night. Wasn't that awfully short, one of the Kerry supporters watching behind me asked, after hearing Arnold speak for 30 minutes.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is the Republican King of the most Democratic state in America. He has the nerve to invoke Nixon and call legislators "girlie men," and the naivete not to understand why a centrist state is dominated by out-of-touch extremists. In a state where every other statewide office is held by Democrats, where the Legislature is dominated by liberals, where the congressional delegation includes two of the most outspoken women senators, Arnold is the most popular and effective politician out there, with an organization in place that can basically win almost any reasonable referendum it puts on the ballot.

Not bad for a guy who started in politics a year and a half ago.

But what allows Arnold to succeed, beyond his personal charisma _ which is, of course, substantial _ is that he has positioned himself squarely in the middle, which is where most Californians basically are: fiscally responsible, progressive on social issues, pro-business and pro-environment. His issues profile matches that of California voters far better than does that of the Legislature, or either of the two organized parties.

That is no accident, but instead, precisely the problem _ and in California it's worse than almost anywhere else. Consider this a case study of what may be the most fundamental problem of American politics.

The Assembly in California is made up of a majority of very liberal Democrats and a minority of very conservative Republicans that is large enough to block any tax increase under state law. The districts are all either safe for Democrats or safe for Republicans. This year, not a single seat changed hands.

This is done intentionally. Republicans might increase their clout if they were spread thinner over more areas, but the winners would almost certainly be more moderate if also more numerous. So they don't want it, and neither do the Democrats.

Ask some Southerners what happened to the conservative white Democratic Party, and they'll argue that it was partly a victim of the intentional creation of majority minority districts, which brought blacks and Hispanics into Congress. There is no more sensitive topic among Democrats. The black Caucus will tell you that, historically, it is because black Democrats vote for whites in the South but white Democrats don't vote for blacks that it has been necessary to draw district lines based on race.

Arnold announced Wednesday that he would take on the system that allows legislators to draw their own districts _ that if the Legislature wasn't willing to give the power to a group of retired judges, then he would take the issue to the voters. If anyone can make the spinach of political reform sexy, it is the former Terminator.

What Arnold is really doing in taking on redistricting in California is taking on the polarization that has characterized not only partisan politics but also partisan discourse. Both parties have adhered to the same rules: Better to be a vocal and rigid minority than to take the risk of winning from the middle.

The media also tend to play it that way: Better to have the idiot on the left yell at the idiot on the right than to take a chance that people might actually find someone they agree with entertaining.

There's nothing wrong with people with passions. But since when do the crazed ideologues have a monopoly on passion? Arnold is passionate enough, he's just passionate one way on some issues and the other way on others. Rush Limbaugh happens to be brilliant and entertaining. Most of the people who imitate him are neither, and they spout the conservative line like the lazy thinkers they are. For my money, Crossfire has been going downhill since Michael Kinsley left. Most liberals seem to think it's all a right-wing conspiracy. But if it is, we are willing participants.

Ask the experts, and they'll tell you that no one cares about reforming the political process. Gerrymandering was named after Elbridge Gerry, the 19th-century vice president who was best known for drawing a district that looked like a salamander. With all the problems Arnold faces with his budget, pensions, corrections and the like, some people expect political reform to fall by the wayside. But I'm not betting on it. Knowing Arnold, I think it's just the sort of area where he will see, rightly, the potential for fundamental long-term change.

More importantly, it strikes the chord that has been key to his candidacy and popularity: that the real excitement of American politics today is to be found in the middle _ not with the parties, but with the people. As they would say in Hollywood, it's Ronald Reagan meets Bill Clinton. How do you beat that?

Susan Estrich is a syndicated columnist and a law professor at the University of Southern California.

Creators Syndicate