Reagan and Schwarzenegger

Lou Cannon, a veteran journalist and Reagan biographer, believes California’s current actor-turned-governor is a much better politician than his predecessor.

Nobody saw this coming, especially not the new governor. Just before his election victory, he happily told Peter Jennings that were he to win, the state’s political establishment would “go crazy.” On his first day in office, he made good on his one solid campaign pledge by repealing an increase in the state’s much-hated car tax.

Yet since then, he has been transformed into a master politician, wheeling and dealing with the Democratic-controlled legislature and pulling off a string of surprising victories. He has also been able to negotiate with many constituencies historically leery of Republicans, including the California Teachers Association, the trustees of the state’s two university systems, and the public employees’ unions.

In comparison, Ronald Reagan was suspicious of legislators after taking office in 1967 and didn’t rush into negotiations. It wasn’t really until his second term, beginning in 1971, that he sat down with Democratic leaders and hammered out notable compromises on welfare reform and other issues.

The gregarious Mr. Schwarzenegger, however, has been cheerfully dealing with the opposition since his first day in office, often over cigars in a tent in a courtyard outside his office. He has even bonded with the crusty, very liberal State Senate leader, John Burton. “Arnold’s a negotiator,” Mr. Burton told me. “He negotiated all these movie deals.” Mr. Burton praised the governor as being far more “engaged” than his predecessor, Gray Davis, a Democrat and career politician.

Interesting. I haven’t followed Schwarzenegger’s tenure in office nearly as closely as the bizarre circumstances that led to his election. While I was no fan of the recall and thought most of the Governator’s campaign was rather vapid, he does seem to have turned himself into an effective politico.

In addition to Reagan, the other obvious comparison is with Jesse Ventura, another musclebound action movie star that won a governorship ahead of him. Ventura did a much better job early on of articulating his political vision. He squandered any opportunity for effectiveness, however, by continually bashing the major party legislators with whom he had to work and, more generally, by not taking the job seriously, treating the governorship as the equivalent of a talk radio show. Schwarzenegger seems to have decided to actually dedicate himself to his latest role.

James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Fred Boness says:

    It’s not his latest role; It’s his latest business.

  2. Attila Girl says:

    I hated some of his rhetoric; he did skirt a lot of the tough questions when he campaigned. But his heart is as big as he is, and he appears to sense that a lot of people’s quality of life depends on him doing a good job.

    We need to change the rules so that emigres can become President. Not because I want to see him in the White House–but because I don’t want his birthplace to be the reason he isn’t.

  3. Boyd says:

    Yes, indeedy, the Governator certainly did “skirt” a few issues during his campaign, but he got elected anyway.


  4. Boyd says:

    Oops, my tag line got “HTML’d.” Let’s try it again:

    Boyd <- King of the Bad Pun

  5. Mr. Dart says:

    Full disclosure: We were preparing to relocate from California after 15 years if Davis had not been recalled. We supported McClintock but voted for Arnold and when he won we refinanced the ranch and stayed put.
    I had hoped for the best, thought he’d do well, (which is why I didn’t vote for the ideologically pure but hard-headed McClintock)but watching him daily I am amazed. He is as natural a politician as I’ve ever observed in my many years and as such has done everything he promised one after another with incredible speed.
    Cannon is correct in this regard. However, whether he ultimately can keep Republicans happy will be the true test. One of his next issues is the “drivers licenses for illegals” mess. It will take all of his charm to pull off what he aims for there. However, if he follows through on making our legislature a part-time job, well, he’ll have the R’s won over forever.

  6. cj says:

    Perhaps I’m mistaken, but I can’t help thinking that Arnie *must* be surrounded by a cadre of smart policy advisors. Any news on who they might be?