Media Gives Schwarzenegger Pass on Budget Impasse

by Randy Shaw on August 8, 2007

Remember when former California Governor Gray Davis was lambasted up and down the state for the legislature’s failure to pass a timely budget? The media framed the impasse as demonstrating Davis’ lack of leadership skills, even though those holding up the budget were Republicans who were not under his control. The media’s unfair framing played a critical role in Davis’ recall in 2003. But now Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is in charge, and Republican state senators are again holding up the budget. Who does the media blame? Not the Governor, despite the fact that it is his lack of leadership that is to blame. But there is some good news: The gridlock may force Arnold to back a change in the 2/3 legislative approval required for state budgets.

As Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger sells the national media on his “post-partisan” political movement, those lauding his approach ignore political reality. California’s budget stalemate is partisan politics at its fiercest, and it is the Governor who has utterly failed in his marketing of “post-partisanship” to his fellow Republicans.

The corporate media likes nothing more than a politician claiming to be “above partisanship.” We saw this in the media’s invention of a mythical “nonpartisan” Senator John McCain, and its longstanding praise of Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman (when he was nominally a Democrat).

But Arnold has served the media’s desires even better because he spends little time currying favor with Republican legislators. So his “post-partisanship” mantle appears more legitimate, and protects him from fallout even when it becomes clear—as with the budget stalemate—that the Terminator has no clothes.

Gray Davis must be wondering why he got blamed for recalcitrant Republicans holding up the budget while Arnold gets only sympathy. It’s not just that Arnold is a former movie star who impresses the media by his very presence—though that is a factor.

The more significant distinction between Davis and the current Governor is their relationship with organized labor. Davis’ coziness with labor was not appreciated by the Republican-dominated newspaper editorial rooms; these same editors and publishers know that Arnold is the only Republican who can win a major statewide office in California, so they either back him or risk increasing labor’s power.

The corporate press sees Arnold as having his proverbial finger in the dike, holding off the progressive deluge that would spout forth in his absence. So better to blame the Republican Senators, whose prior obstinacy proved a perfect foil for the media’s undermining of Gray Davis.

Since Schwarzenegger aspires to a Senate run against Barbara Boxer in 2010, he cannot afford bad publicity. And the corporate media is willing to accommodate him by keeping his image untarnished by the budget statemate.

But if a similar situation occurs next year—and there is no reason it won’t– even the media won’t be able to get the public to start pointing fingers at Arnold. “Post-partisanship” will be seen as another snappy slogan, the type of meaningless buzz-word that non-politician Schwarzenegger claims to disavow.

To avoid annual budget stalemates by the Republican minority, Arnold may find it in his interest to back a change in California’s rule that budgets must be passed by a 2/3 vote of each legislative chamber. Only three states impose a 2/3 rule, which is unheard of at the local level.

A state ballot measure to reduce the 2/3 vote failed badly, but it also had a provision making it easier to raise taxes. Take that provision out, reduce the 2/3 to 55%, and Arnold has an opportunity to put “post-partisanship” on the front page by backing a reform budget initiative in February or June 2008.

Arnold was originally elected on a platform to stop gridlock in Sacramento. Now he faces a choice: support reform that ends budget gridlock by a 1/3 plus one minority, or see his political support steadily eroded by the Republicans whose party name he borrowed, and who now despise him for ignoring their concerns.

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