Arnold Schwarzenegger was back from his last big trip to Asia as governor of California and sounded pretty sick. But he powered through a Friday appearance giving out the annual awards of his Governor's Council on Physical Fitness and Sport. The overall numbers for the program were pretty impressive, with big increases in fitness activity levels for California schoolkids.
Still, another set of new numbers may have more bearing on Schwarzenegger's future. Then there's the usual state budget stalemate and the fights over the fate of the landmark climate change program Schwarzenegger helped enact and whether Jerry Brown or billionaire Republican Meg Whitman -- now the biggest spending candidate in American history -- will succeed him as governor.
On Friday, The Expendables went over the $100 million mark in domestic box office. The Expendables is the old school action flick, directed by and starring Schwarzenegger's old rival-turned-pal Sylvester Stallone, which has become a late summer hit movie. Part of that is due to Schwarzenegger. He has only a cameo role in the picture -- one scene which he filmed in a few hours last year -- but it was heavily publicized in trailers, advertising, and PR as a sort of summit meeting of classic action stars. And Schwarzenegger appeared with his friend Stallone in LA and Vegas to help promote the movie.
Schwarzenegger is Trent Mauser (Mauser being a famous German small arms manufacturer), a mercenary rival of Stallone's character who's summoned along with "Barney Ross" to a meeting in a church by Bruce Willis's shadowy spook. (Who is, naturally, in the way of these things, Mr. Church.) This Planet Hollywood reunion is the cleverest thing in the movie, with plenty of amusing insults exchanged, as well as a great political joke at Schwarzenegger's expense.
Truth be told, the picture isn't all that. Stallone is a very smart and funny guy who came up with a great idea for a movie. There's no question he delivered the genre goods. If you like big guys with big muscles, tatoos, cigars, big knives, motorcycles, loud guns and explosions, clever yet mostly obvious one-liners, a few babes ... Well, you get the gist. If you like all that stuff, or even if you only like some of it, The Expendables is a lot of it.
Stallone pushes the genre conventions so hard to the forefront that it seems to be the point. The movie revels in '80s action movie cliches. Which adds a level of humor that I'm sure is intentional. Then there was the conceit of Stallone and Jason Statham, scouting the requisite imprisoned island in their guise as pro-wildlife activists, complete with their "Global Wildlife Conservancy" plane, which I found hilarious. But the action gets far too generic, too, with the very stock villains finally taken down in action sequences so deeply generic they seem to be from any video game of the last 20 years.
Okay, Inception it ain't. But it's a great idea, capably executed, with obvious room for expansion into a better sequel. Perhaps one that also stars a certain former governor of California.
It seems clear that movies are in Schwarzenegger's future. But there's plenty of politics to come before he's done being governor next January, and plenty after as well, though he probably won't be running for office again.
There's California's chronic budget crisis, which predates Schwarzenegger and will live on after him. The fabulous state Legislature has just broken its record for most overdue budget in history.
Whitman is blaming Schwarzenegger for the budget stalemate. It's curious, in that former McCain/Palin national co-chair Whitman is mostly guided by former Schwarzenegger advisors who made a fortune off the action superstar even as they helped get him into trouble. But Whitman, a bored billionaire who didn't bother to vote before her business mentor, Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney, convinced her that she should run for governor, has no sense of history. And she doesn't know what's going on now.
Democratic legislative leaders have shown a striking lack of urgency on the budget, not even scheduling a vote until two-and-a-half weeks ago. Why is that?
There's an initiative on the November ballot to change the two-thirds vote requirement for legislative passage of the budget -- California is one of only a few states with such a requirement -- to a majority vote. Proposition 25 would not change the two-thirds vote requirement on taxes. But passage of a budget lacking enough revenue could create more pressure to extract the few necessary Republican votes.
The private polling I've heard about is promising for Prop 25. Naturally, the longer this budget drags on, the better the case for something like, well, Prop 25 to get rid of the gridlock.
Sure, it doesn't help the image of the Legislature as an institution, but Republicans have no hope of winning a majority in either legislative body. And that's especially so since the politicians are running in gerrymandered districts, with mostly safe Democratic and Republican seats.
Whitman doesn't get this.
Instead, she's taken to pretending that she can force legislators to act, knocking Schwarzenegger in the process. She just criticized his six-day Asian trade mission. At a disastrous visit to the headquarters of online consumer rating firm Yelp, where she was flummoxed by questions about his dishonest attack ads against Jerry Brown, Whitman said that if Yelp had an outage, "I don't think Jeremy (Yelp CEO and co-founder Jeremy Stoppelman) would have decamped to China.
The week before, she argued in a campaign stop in a Sacramento suburb that Schwarzenegger should have forced the Legislature into action.
"What we are suffering from is a tremendous lack of leadership in Sacramento," claimed Whitman. The 'Big Five' would have been in the governor's office, under my leadership, every day. I would have chained them to the desk to get this done."
This is more of Whitman's utterly unserious nonsense.
You can't shove state legislators around like they are little PR people. (I'm referring, of course, to the infamous incident shortly before Whitman resigned as eBay's CEO, which cost a few hundred thousand to settle claims against her Whitman and eBay.) Schwarzenegger has already tried Whitman's supposed solution of getting a bill passed to take away legislative salaries when the budget is late. He's also tried things she has no ability to do, such as campaigning in individual districts and even trying to defeat Democratic legislators.
Which Whitman's chief strategist Mike Murphy should know, since he was around for all that, and in fact pushed for the unsuccessful moves.
The next governor will have some leverage that Schwarzenegger hasn't, in the form of redistricting being taken out of the Legislature's hands and new open primaries. Together, these measures will, over time, reduce some of the hyperpartisanship which grips both the Democratic and Republican parties in the state Capitol.
But Whitman had nothing to do with any of these reforms. She actively opposed the open primary initiative, and was nowhere to be found when it was time to ante up to pass the redistricting reform initiative.
These are all measures that Schwarzenegger pushed through.
Schwarzenegger and Whitman are at odds on California's landmark climate change program, as well.
Schwarzenegger has a big private event this weekend at the Bay Area home of his friend, former Secretary of State George Shultz, organizing opposition to Proposition 23, the oil industry-backed initiative to do away with the state's climate change/renewable energy program. Among the key players on hand will be billionaire hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, who co-chairs the No on 23 campaign with Shultz, and former state Controller Steve Westly, the greentech venture capitalist and big Obama backer who was a Whitman colleague at eBay and is now a co-chair of Jerry Brown's campaign.
Whitman has said all along that she is against the AB 32 program, which Schwarzenegger signed into law at an elaborate 2006 ceremony on San Francisco Bay's Treasure Island. She's officially neutral on the initiative, in a fruitless effort to avoid getting caught in a backlash against it, but has alternated between saying the AB 32 program should be suspended or done away with altogether.
The man she's breaking all spending records to try to beat, Jerry Brown, of course is a staunch defender of AB 32, having pioneered renewable energy and conservation programs decades ago. He and Schwarzenegger sued the Bush/Cheney Administration on behalf of the state's efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
Schwarzenegger has been having success in blocking business funding for the Yes on 23 initiative campaign outside the oil industry, and his recruitment of Shultz, a longtime GOP icon, as co-chair of the No on 23 campaign was a notable coup.
No on 23 co-chair Steyer told me recently that financial backing for Yes on 23 has not expanded beyond the out-of-state oil industry because California businesses see the value of growing a green economy.
That's what Schwarzenegger thinks as well. Which is why movies will likely be only one part of what Schwarzenegger does beyond his governorship.
What's going to happen with the initiative to do away with California's climate change program? Looking at private polling data, my assessment is that, if Schwarzenegger and the others do what they need to do, it will be defeated.