08/07/2013 09:23 pm ET Updated Oct 07, 2013

California's Pivotal Day: Things Could Have Gone Very Differently for Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jerry Brown, Gray Davis, and Many More

We just passed the 10th anniversary of one of the most pivotal days in California's history.

That was August 6th. It was Hiroshima Day, of course, 68th anniversary of the first use of an atomic bomb against a population, which itself got pretty short shrift in this shallow media environment. (Though not in Japan, of course, where they launched a ship the USC-educated prime minister calls a destroyer but which to my not unpracticed eye looks uncannily like an aircraft carrier.) It was also the 10th anniversary of Arnold Schwarzenegger's "surprise" announcement on The Tonight Show of his candidacy for Governor of California.

Hardly anyone took notice. I had a story on my New West Notes blog. Schwarzenegger himself published an op-ed in the Financial Times decrying America losing its leadership in renewable energy, recounting his experience in June traveling to Belgium and Algeria. But he didn't mention the anniversary.

It's partly a measure of the deterioration of the news media, remaining elements of which are are more attuned to twitter than to history, even recent history, with explanatory journalism increasingly rare. I say "remaining elements" because there are only a few members of the California political press corps left who were even around for the 2003 California recall election which sparked massive global news coverage, thanks to its inherent melodrama and the presence of a vast field of candidates including none other than Arianna Huffington and, oh yes, Arnold Schwarzenegger. And, to a lesser extent, it's a measure of Schwarzenegger's recent straits, including his major personal controversy. Before that, even though he won two landslide elections as California's governor, his approval rating had melted down to 22% the summer before he left office, thanks to the effects of the great global recession and a massive chronic state budget crisis. In the final polling, published the month before he left office in January 2011, he had recovered somewhat to a 32% approval rating, but was still looking for ways to keep rising when scandalmania hit.

Now, it's fair to say he is in reboot mode. Things can still turn out brightly for him, with a renewed movie career, major projects as a sportsman, international involvement on renewables and climate, and a nascent USC institute.

The spotlight was seldom brighter than on August 6th, 2003.

I expected Schwarzenegger to run for governor, based on my reporting of the time. Which in no small measure was based on Schwarzenegger himself. As well as my assessment of the situation as a columnist and experienced political advisor; namely, that it was wide open for him. Here's my LA Weekly feature -- "True Lies: A Week in the Life of the Terminator, the Candidate Hiding in Plain Sight" -- explaining what had happened, what was happening, and what was about to happen as the election unfolded.

But let's say that Schwarzenegger did not run. That was possible, too. Hardly anyone on his payroll expected him to run. What would have happened had he not run?

Would a wounded Governor Gray Davis, whipsawed between left and right, staggered by an electric power crisis manipulated by power companies and stunned by a huge state budget crisis (as tends to happen when your legislature is run by Democrats who won't cut spending in an economic downturn and Republicans who won't raise revenues) have survived the recall election? And had he done so, would he have been able to govern at all?

Would Schwarzenegger have run in the regularly scheduled election of 2006 -- which was my expectation when I predicted in this LA Weekly feature, Mr. California, back in 2002 that he would be the next governor of California -- rather than parachute into 2003 in dramatic fashion? Would he have survived the Republican primary? And, assuming he did, would he have sorted out a true team of Arnold people to help run his campaign and government rather than the plug-and-play Pete Wilson operation of his campaign and first term? (Some of those folks undoubtedly would have emerged as Arnold people, absent the group sense of wanting to create a third Wilson term behind the Arnold aura.)

Would winning in a normal election rather than the ultra-dramatic recall which drew massive global media have made Schwarzenegger less likely to believe in his invincibility, and thus less likely to ride into his across-the-board special election initiatives defeat in his 2005 "Year of Reform?"

And what of Jerry Brown? Would his time have come round again, as it has so surely now?

If a centrist Schwarzenegger was running for re-election in 2010, would Brown, who admired Schwarzenegger and knew first-hand how difficult an incumbent governor is to defeat, have run against him? And had he not, would that have opened the door for a younger Democrat, leaving the idea of Brown running for his renewed tenure as governor in 2014 make him him seem yesterday's man?

I think a great deal hinged on Schwarzenegger's decision to run 10 years ago today. His first term after a normal -- well, as normal as any election featuring the world's biggest action movie star -- election in 2006 might well have been steadier than his post-recall first term.

And it's not at all unlikely that Jerry Brown would not have re-emerged as governor. The timing might have been all wrong. Rather than be running for a likely re-election in 2014 at age 76, he might have been running for the office for the first time since 1978. At age 76. Which in Brown's case is not old -- I can see him as governor in his 80s but for term limits finally applying to him -- but as a number in the abstract is somewhat daunting. (The key to Brown's vitality, aside from the razor sharp mind and all those pull-ups he can do, is his voice. He sounds much as he did in the '70s and '80s.)

As it happens, though, there was an outside chance that Brown might have run himself in the 2003 recall election, though that would have been very awkward with his former chief of staff Gray Davis very much in the complicated election picture. (There were two elections: Up or down on Davis. And then the question of who would replace him if he was recalled. Davis preferred that no serious Democrat run in the replacement election, so as to delegitimize the overall recall election, though many wanted Senator Dianne Feinstein to run as a back-up plan, which she predictably did not. But his quarrelsome Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante put the kibosh on that plan, and was crushed by Schwarzenegger for his pains.)

Who would have won between Schwarzenegger and Brown in 2003? Hard to say. Schwarzenegger was a phenom, but there was a big opening for a skilled campaigner to gain traction while the movie star got up to speed on the issues. That certainly describes Brown, someone with plenty of experience pivoting in and out of presidential primaries. I remember in 1992 Brown entering the Colorado presidential primary in fifth place behind Bill Clinton and some other guys; 10 days later he won it going away.

However, it's important to point out that the singular force that Brown is today was made possible in part by going through a sequence of finishing his second term as mayor of gritty Oakland, then winning and serving an effective term as state attorney general. In 2003, he was still very early in his second term as Oakland mayor.

It certainly would have made for a spectacular political drama. My mischievous side thinks I should have encouraged them both to run. My guess: Schwarzenegger would have beaten Brown, very narrowly. (Assuming that Brown didn't take command of the race while Schwarzenegger, who had planned "only" to launch and market Terminator 3 that summer, was back at his house boning up on the issues.) And Schwarzenegger would have been a better politician a lot sooner.

All in all, it's a fascinating set of what-ifs.

Incidentally, you notice that I'm not actually answering most of these questions. Why spoil the fun?

Did things turn out for the best? That's something that requires more than a column to assess. They certainly turned out to be extremely interesting. Schwarzenegger had some big successes as governor, some of historic scope, as well as some big, er, non-successes. Gray Davis was recalled but is in a good place as former governor, a good thing to be, both relaxed and engaged as a lawyer and senior statesman. And now Jerry Brown is back for his own inimitable brand of history.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ...

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