Bad things happen when those in power lack seriousness. Not long ago we had a Republican president who told Iraqi insurgents: "Bring 'em on!" Now we have a Republican governor in California who sees the state's current budget catastrophe as nothing but a big joke. Why else would Arnold Schwarzenegger post a tasteless Twitter video where he wields a two-foot-long folding knife boasting about his budget-cutting prowess? When a reporter off camera gently reminded Schwarzenegger that it might be in bad taste to be playing with a knife symbolizing his joy in making deep cuts that punish the poor, elderly, children, college students and government employees, Schwarzenegger responded: "Not that I have fun with making the cuts -- they sadden me -- but... that doesn't mean that you cannot wave a knife around, or to wave your sword around, to get the message across that certain cuts have to be made because it's budget time."
"They sadden me."
These cuts come at a time when the state is experiencing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. They will inflict pain and suffering and hurt in myriad ways on millions of Californians. Schwarzenegger might as well have staged a scene where he drives that knife right into the heart of one of his most vulnerable victims.
We'll see how much "public support" is out there for these cruel and foolish budget cuts when their effects really sink in six to nine months from now.
What's been playing out in California could be the stubborn last gasp of the "Republican Revolution." What began in California might have to end in California, just like a movie where the sun sets as the credits roll.
Back in 1962, a group of wealthy Southern California Republicans led by a guy named Holmes Tuttle urged an actor named Ronald Reagan to run for the U.S. Senate. A couple of years later, an arch-conservative New Jersey transplant, Rus Walton, formed United Republicans of California (UROC), which symbolized the right-wing force that would launch a new national movement. In 1966, they succeeded in taking Reagan out of his leisure-class Southern California entertainment industry social circles and catapulting him to becoming the governor of the nation's most populated state. By the 1980s, their political experiment bore fruit beyond their wildest dreams.
But there were problems with the "conservative revolution." So harsh were Reagan's attacks on the least fortunate among us that soon other Republicans had to call themselves "kinder and gentler" or "compassionate conservatives" to sell their brand to an increasingly disillusioned public. (At the 1988 Republican National Convention, Nancy Reagan was said to have asked a friend: "kinder and gentler compared to what?") Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, and George W. Bush took this "conservative revolution" into the nether-regions of political sanity, and when the dust settled Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress and we had a very urban, very liberal, and very Democratic African-American president.
But California remained left behind.
Despite the enormous power of the California Democratic congressional delegation, which includes Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (the first woman ever to hold that post), and Senators Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein, both of whom hold powerful committee chairs, and Representatives George Miller and Henry Waxman, and many other power-brokers in the House, the state government is firmly in the hands of the same type of right-wing Republicans that started the whole "conservative movement" in the first place. And they're holding on to power with white-knuckled fists.
No one modeled his political career more on Ronald Reagan than Arnold Schwarzenegger. Like Reagan, Schwarzenegger is an actor. Like Reagan, he is charming and ebullient. Like Reagan he delivers one-liners with panache. And like Reagan he always remembers his lines and never misses a chalk mark. Photo-ops are his specialty. Even tasteless ones like wielding a two-foot knife at a time when he is destroying people's lives with devastating budget cuts.
But what Schwarzenegger and the less-kind and-gentle Republicans miss is that Reagan signed what amounted to the biggest tax increase in California's history when he was governor, and as president he raised taxes thirteen times. Reagan had a pragmatic streak that defies his acolytes among the current crop of Republicans.
Arnold Schwarzenegger will be gone soon. He'll be back home sitting in his Jacuzzi and smoking his $50 cigars. When George W. Bush departed from the national stage it left a huge vacuum to fill for the national Republican Party. When Schwarzenegger's knife-wielding movie is no longer running in Sacramento, there will be a huge vacuum to fill for California Republicans. They will have to find another charismatic leader who can enter any room and suck the oxygen out of it by dint of his or her own celebrity.
Like Bush, Schwarzenegger will be a hard act to follow.
Follow Joseph A. Palermo on Twitter: www.twitter.com/JosephPalermo1