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The Arnold Factor

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He was once arguably the most popular governor of California in history. Now, not so much.

First elected in the dramatic California recall election of 2003, Arnold Schwarzenegger has less than seven months left in the governorship. He's won two landslide elections to the office, but, while he retains personal popularity, his job approval rating is now in the twenties.

Post-mortems are already underway.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, seen here at his election night party at the Beverly Hilton, hit a high water mark with his landslide 2006 re-election as governor of California.

He's strictly a lame duck, right? Well, no. Schwarzenegger played a big role in last week's California primary election. And he may have an even bigger role to play in the general election, when Californians vote on an initiative to do away with the state's landmark climate change program. With climate change and renewable energy initiatives slowed in Congress, this is a vote that will have both national and international import.

Before we get to the general election, let's look back at the California primary election.

The Republican primary to succeed Schwarzenegger was striking for all the criticism of the moderate Republican governor. State Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, once a Schwarzenegger ally, got a lot of mileage out of a TV ad in which a picture of Schwarzenegger morphs into billionaire Meg Whitman, claiming that she would be the second coming of Schwarzenegger. For her part, Whitman slammed Schwarzenegger in speeches, as both she and Poizner hugged the far right rail of California politics. Whitman, who spent a record-shattering $90 million to win the GOP nomination in the lowest turnout primary election in California history, faces wily maverick Jerry Brown in the fall.

Needless to say, Schwarzenegger had no favorite in the Republican gubernatorial primary, and his top aides issued pithy "corrections" of various Whitman and Poizner statements.

Former Schwarzenegger ally Steve Poizner made headway in the Republican gubernatorial primary with this ad in which the governor morphs into novice billionaire Meg Whitman.

Where Schwarzenegger had a big positive impact was in two other campaigns. After an earlier attempt failed, an open primary initiative, Proposition 14, passed with heavy financial and organizational backing from Schwarzenegger. And moderate Republican Abel Maldonado, Schwarzenegger's appointee as California's lieutenant governor, handily defeated a far right former colleague from the state Senate. Maldonado, the first Latino Republican to hold statewide office in California in more than a century, will face San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom in the general election.

Prop 14 won by a healthy 54% to 46% margin, giving Schwarzenegger a matched pair of initiative victories for what he calls his electoral reform agenda. In November 2008, an initiative to take legislative redistricting out of legislative hands passed by a narrow 51% to 49% margin. That was the second time Schwarzenegger tried such an initiative, having lost in 2005. No previous redistricting initiative had passed in any other state.

After the primary, Schwarzenegger appeared with coalition allies in L.A. and at the Capitol and praised many, including Maldonado and campaign manager Adam Mendelsohn, for their roles in the victory.

Schwarzenegger said, as he has many times before, that hyperpartisan posturing gets in the way of productivity and that open primaries -- in which candidates must appeal to a general electorate, rather than a closed partisan setting -- like the end of gerrymandering, will help foster a more cooperative political culture in which politicians must appeal to the center in order to move forward to the general election.

"I think the message was loud and clear to Sacramento," he said. "I think they (California voters) wanted to change the dysfunctional political system and get rid of the paralysis and the partisan bickering that's going on in Sacramento."

He rejected the idea that an open primary will end up costing far more for candidates, noting that California has had a similar system in the past without that effect.

Schwarzenegger discusses the open primary initiative, Proposition 14, which passed last week with bipartisan support, though the Republican and Democratic party organizations both opposed it.

Indeed, former Governor Gray Davis, the Democrat who was defeated by Schwarzenegger in the 2003 recall, has pointed out to me in the past that he was elected under a similar system in 1998 and found that it worked very well.

Davis backed the open primary initiative, as he backed Schwarzenegger with the redistricting reform initiative, and thinks this measure will pass muster with the courts, which the earlier one did not. Davis believes that an open primary, coupled with the already passed redistricting reform initiative, will create a more reasonable Legislature.

Indeed, a group of former governors, including Brown, who endorsed an open primary last year in a speech to the California Newspaper Publishers Association, agreed to sign a letter backing the initiative. But in the end, Schwarzenegger's team decided that the initiative campaign -- blessed with a raft of editorial endorsements and a ton of money raised by Schwarzenegger -- was doing just fine without political events.

Whitman, reflecting the orthodoxy of her party, opposes an open primary.

Whitman, a staunch supporter of offshore oil drilling as national co-chair of the McCain/Palin campaign, also opposes California's landmark climate change program, known as AB 32, which will be the subject of a rollback initiative on the November ballot. First she called for a one-year moratorium on implementing the law. More recently, she's made statements that the program should be ended altogether. In her only debate of any note, Whitman expressed grave doubt about the threat posed by greenhouse gas emissions.

Schwarzenegger launched the ultimately successful redistricting reform initiative in 2008.

Jerry Brown, of course, who pioneered California's renewable energy and energy efficiency programs -- which Schwarzenegger has pursued and which have become a model for the Obama Administration -- backs California's greenhouse gas reduction program. As California's attorney general, he's aggressively pursued legal action against the late Bush/Cheney Administration and others trying to block action on greenhouse gases, often working with Schwarzenegger.

Brown, whose office came up with the not especially flattering ballot description for the initiative, has a challenging governor's race to run. So it's Schwarzenegger and his team who are organizing the opposition to the initiative to do away with the AB 32 climate change program. (AB 32 was the legislation signed by Schwarzenegger in 2006, co-authored by then Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez and now state Senator Fran Pavley, both Los Angeles Democrats.)

So far, in part due to the influence of the business-friendly Schwarzenegger, the coalition pushing the anti-AB 32 initiative has not expanded beyond oil companies and right-wing ideologues. Indeed, the great bulk of the money, some 80%, behind the initiative comes from oil companies, with two Texas companies, Valero and Tesoro, spearheading the drive to qualify the measure for the ballot. Which led Schwarzenegger, once seen as a disciple of libertarian economic guru Milton Friedman, to denounce "greedy oil companies."

In addition to tamping down fundraising for the anti-green initiative, Schwarzenegger and his team are taking the lead on raising funds for the campaign against it.

They've also lined up a Republican icon, former Secretary of State and Secretary of the Treasury George Shultz, as a campaign chair.

The private polling I've seen on this looks favorable for the environmental side. But you can expect conservative interests from around the country to funnel money into the campaign to knock off California's landmark climate change program.

Schwarzenegger, as it happens, held his long scheduled Advanced Transportation Summit yesterday. Though he was famous before he became governor for promoting the Hummer, Schwarzenegger has long promoted alternative fuels vehicles, and the event was something of a summation of that effort.

Schwarzenegger toured a collection of 20 alternative new vehicles before addressing the summit of 200 business executives, policy figures, and activists, all on the same day as Barack Obama's address to the nation on the Gulf oil disaster. In a rather contemplative mode, he recalled the early days of his governorship, when he directed that the state show alternative vehicles at the 2004 Los Angeles Auto Show and there were only two on view. This year there were 17 models, and at Tuesday's summit 20, not including Tesla and Fisker whose vehicles are sold out.

Schwarzenegger, introduced by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, signed California's landmark climate change program into law in this 2006 Treasure Island ceremony which attracted British Prime Minister Tony Blair and other notables.

Schwarzenegger said that he would continue to push the issue:

Even when I'm finished with this job, which, by the way, is the greatest job I've ever had, even though we were hit by a tremendous economic downturn like the rest of the world. You can't pick that, that is beyond your power. Just to serve the people of California has been such a pleasure. Not just as an American, but as an immigrant, who came over here with absolutely nothing. This country has given me the opportunities that I've had, and made it possible to become successful in different areas.

I want you to know that after I'm through with this, that I will continue on my mission to help companies, promote alternative fuel vehicles, and help California to become energy efficient and create the renewables and to fight for laws so we go in that direction.

For me this is never over. It's like working out. Yeah, I stopped competing at one point. When I got too old, and my bones were hurting. But I didn't stop training. And the same with this.

There are three other big California campaigns Schwarzenegger might be involved with in the fall.

First, there is an initiative to repeal the redistricting reform initiative Schwarzenegger pushed in November 2008. The private polling I've seen on that is not promising for the initiative's proponents.

Next there is the $11 billion water bond package that Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders got past the state legislature last year, the first big water program enacted by the state in decades.

There's no question that California is in a long-term drought situation. Nor that climate change can wreak havoc on the water supplies of a growing state. But California got a lot of rain this year and people don't sense that they're in a drought. The future is a long ways off. And many on the left think the package is too much of a giveaway for business, while many on the right say it's filled with green pork. Schwarzenegger has an important decision to make about going forward.

Then there is the governor's race itself.

Since last week's primary, Schwarzenegger has said that he is neutral between Brown and his fellow Republican Whitman, whose campaign is populated at its highest levels by former top Schwarzenegger aides. Emphasis on former, as they were predominant in his circle when Schwarzenegger's governorship nearly crashed and burned in 2005 when he pursued his failed "Year of Reform" special election initiatives.

Will Schwarzenegger remain neutral in the governor's race? Perhaps.

In the meantime, he will have his hands full, especially in beating back the anti-green initiative.

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