SAN FRANCISCO The Governator's back, and that's good news, maybe, for the Republicans in California. This could be bad news, definitely, for a certain Democrat. The mere prospect is one of the few rays of hope for the Grouchy Old Party.
A new Field Poll, the oldest and often the most reliable California polling firm, finds that 56 percent of California voters now think Arnold Schwarzenegger is a "satisfactory" governor. This includes even majorities of Democrats and independents.
This is despite a monthslong impasse over how to structure the immense state budget and the governor's failure to deliver a "reform" of health care. His numbers are probably even higher than Field reckons, because the poll results were calculated before wildfires destroyed hundreds of houses and terrorized everyone in Southern California. The Governator was photographed everywhere at the fires, lending muscle to the firefighters, everybody's heroes, and escorting President Bush, not everybody's hero, over scorched hill and burnt-out dale. He looked like a movie governor presiding over a movie fire, and Californians who imagine they're living in a movie, anyway like that.
Surging popularity naturally leads to speculation about what's next, and the professional speculators the political reporters, columnists, consultants and others who make their living promoting angst and uncertainty naturally want him to run for something else. Since his Austrian birth precludes his running for president, that something else almost has to be the United States Senate.
"It's a throwdown that probably will never happen," observes Mike Zapler in the San Jose Mercury News, "but that's not about to stop political junkies from dreaming: Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Hollywood star-turned-Republican governor and global warming crusader taking on Sen. Barbara Boxer, the scrappy, liberal three-term Democrat."
The governor and the senator are regarded as the heavyweights in California politics, and the most recent poll shows them in a virtual dead heat 44 percent for the governor, 43 percent for the senator. "This would be a fabulous battle royale," says Robert Stutzman, a Republican consultant and the governor's one-time communications director. "Poll numbers like these just feed the parlor game."
Timing is everything, and the stars in the heavens, like the stars in Sacramento and Washington, look like falling in perfect alignment. The governor's second term in Sacramento will end in 2010, and what a coincidence: so will the senator's third term in Washington. Some Schwarzenegger insiders say he won't run, even though they think he could defeat the senator, because the Senate is the original Gasbag Club, where talk is regarded as action, and the governor is a man of real action. A governor, like a president, is "the man," and a senator, after all, is just a senator.
Some of the speculators think the governor might run for mayor of Los Angeles, downmarket but still a celebrity, returning to his earlier role as the Terminator. He would be the biggest ham (and cheese) in town. Or he might return to Hollywood as a producer or director and make movies, perhaps even a movie about what happens when an actor lives out the ultimate Hollywood dream.
Garry South, a Democratic consultant, thinks the lure of real power, even real power shared with 99 others, will be difficult for the governor to resist once the prospect of becoming just another out-of-work politician begins to come into focus. "I don't think Arnold is any more immune to that than any other politician," he says. "There's nothing like being in office, like people calling you governor, like having a security detail around you. You can't overestimate the allure of all that."
Barbara Boxer, a heroine of the left and thought vulnerable to the right Republican, knows this, too. She raises the possibility, if not the likelihood, of a Schwarzenegger candidacy in her fundraising. So there's something here for everyone. It's an ill gasbag attack that does nobody good.