The Last Action Hero

After seven years that felt like a thousand, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger bequeaths a slightly larger government to a sickly state.


Arnold Schwarzenegger has embodied nearly every archetype known to California: immigrant, athlete, movie star, raconteur, real estate developer, humorist, pundit, politician, cyborg. Yet there's one fantastical role for which he has never been credited: exile. By virtue of his national roots—and his tall tales of facing down commissars and Red Army soldiers in a postwar Austria of the mind—Schwarzenegger may belong to a tradition of Mitteleuropean Los Angeles: German-speaking exiles of the 1930s and '40s who settled in Southern California and remade the nation's cultural life with such all-American innovations as film noir, political street theater, and even the distillation of surf culture globalized by Frederick Kohner's Gidget.

Schwarzenegger will leave Sacramento two days after the new year begins. Barring a future run for Senate—or a surprise revival of his 2004 campaign "Amend for Arnold & Jen" (Granholm that is, the Canadian-born governor of Michigan) calling for a constitutional change that would allow nonnative Americans to become president—he probably will never hold elected public office again. 

Most commentators, including editors of this magazine on multiple occasions, say the Schwarzenegger administration has been a failure. After riding into office on the deficit-driven recall of stone-cold Gray Davis, Schwarzenegger led the state into deficits as large or larger. His repeated high-profile struggles with public-sector employee unions ended in humiliating defeats, including the failure of several gubernator-backed ballot initiatives. Ambitious long-term goals, such as a serious multidecade plan to solve the state's complex water supply challenge, came to nothing. Smaller achievements, such as Schwarzenegger's 2008 redistricting reform, do not seem to have had much impact on the state's political stagnation (or its moribund Republican Party).

In policy terms, the Schwarzenegger administration was a protean monster, lurching from limited-government quests (such as the "California Performance Review" plan to reorganize and streamline government, drawn up with assistance from the Reason Foundation and almost immediately shelved) to epic socialist debacles (such as his failed effort to provide statewide universal health coverage). The governor spent enormous political capital on the state global warming law A.B. 32, which is expected to cost California nearly $100 billion over 10 years while reducing household incomes by as much as a full percentage point. Yet environmentalists quickly lost interest in him, opposing Schwarzenegger on road building plans, a project for the Sacramento Delta, and other key issues. 

So is there a case for Gov. Schwarzenegger? Here's my best defense: 

First, as Abraham Lincoln said of Ulysses Grant, "He fights." Schwarzenegger's time in office has been marked by almost constant public struggles with teachers, prison guards, nurses, and walk-on players like the preening Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and the obstructionist Controller John Chiang. Schwarzenegger, a lifelong dealmaker, is nevertheless willing to fire heavy weapons at his opponents. He has furloughed state employees, sued refractory state officials, declared states of "economic emergency," and rolled out every pay-cut gimmick and spending freeze in his arsenal.

These fights have paid off in unexpected ways. The looming public pension crisis—a vital but boring issue—has unexpectedly become an item of national media interest thanks in large part to Schwarzenegger's war with state employees.

Schwarzenegger is also willing to say the holiest word in any politician's vocabulary: no. He has set yearly state records for percentages of bills vetoed, memorably adding an acrostic F-bomb in the memo accompanying his rejection of a Port of San Francisco boondoggle.

That prickliness extends to state budget deals, which Schwarzenegger has repeatedly rejected even in the face of media controversies and embarrassing episodes in which the state had to issue IOUs in the absence of a budget. As of this writing, this year's budget is still not approved, with the governor demanding lasting reforms to the state's broken employee pension plans before he signs off.

"He's helped us more than he's harmed us, for sure," says Marcia Fritz, president of the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility. "Holding up the budget until pension reform was very effective. He singled out the one issue that is most destructive. Holding up the budget and vetoing bills are the only tools he's got."

Finally, while Schwarzenegger failed to shrink government, he did limit its growth. His year-to-year spending increases averaged 1.4 percent, smaller than those of his recent predecessors and much smaller than the record for big spenders Ronald Reagan (13.6 percent) and Jerry Brown (12.7 percent). The recession and fiscal crisis have contributed: General fund expenditures dropped from $103 billion in 2008 to $86 billion in 2009. This year's general fund spending is likely to be slightly smaller.

If it all seems underwhelming for a star politician who came into office smashing cars and promising to say "Hasta la vista" to big government, it does situate Arnold within a great tradition. When I queried Ehrhard Bahr, author of the fine history Weimar on the Pacific, he explained that Schwarzenegger can't be considered a part of that German-speaking L.A. exile tradition, since he left a democratic Austria and came here of his own free will. But I think his time in office has given him something the exiles knew well, although it may
feel foreign to Arnold's sunny persona: a sense of tragedy, of failure, of a world too big and hostile to be controlled.

Maybe that will inspire the next move in Arnold's career. It's hard to see Schwarzenegger returning to the boredom of movie sets, but he loves a crowd, and there's a thriving live theater market in L.A. In one of the few gags that worked in The Last Action Hero, Schwarzenegger took a bow as Hamlet. ("Claudius, you killed my father: Big mistake!") He's too old for that part now, but I would gladly buy a ticket to see Arnold play King Lear. After all, that's a play about the failure of redistricting. 

Tim Cavanaugh (bigtimcavanaugh@gmail.com) is a senior editor at reason.