When Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina, the Dream Team of the California GOP, joined hands at a rally celebrating their primary victories this month, there was one broad-shouldered Republican conspicuously missing from the scene: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Organizers said the actor-turned-politician declined an invitation to the event. The truth is, he would not have been welcome. After nearly six years in office, Schwarzenegger has few friends left in either party. The state budget deficit hovers around $20 billion; his approval rating has sunk below 25 percent.
"We thought he was going to be a great governor, but he has been a great disappointment," said Geneviève M. Clavreul, a Republican activist.
As candidates in races across the country try to position themselves as the politician with the least political experience, Schwarzenegger's troubles in California illustrate some of the possible downsides of outsiderdom. Like Whitman, the GOP's candidate for governor, and Fiorina, the party's Senate nominee, Schwarzenegger came to office as a non-politician who would solve problems with unconventional ideas.
He had some successes, but the movie star stumbled as he tried to navigate the state's political establishment, with its touchy egos and endless compromises. He floundered as he tried to tame the state's runaway budget and push through ambitious reforms such as universal health care.
Part of Schwarzenegger's initial appeal — he spoke bluntly and his politics were sometimes hard to pin down — made it difficult for him to build a deep base of support. He lost the trust of the conservative wing of the GOP by supporting gay rights and stronger environmental laws. He alienated just about everybody by supporting a tax increase last year.
"I'm a Democrat, and I have been a huge Arnold Schwarzenegger fan," said Robert Hertzberg, a former speaker of the California assembly. "He represented a fusion of ideas, but when it came to the day-to-day governing, he struggled."
Caught in a downturn
Supporters say Schwarzenegger was the victim of the economic downturn, and that his low approval ratings mask a litany of accomplishments. The governor overhauled the state worker's compensation program and found billions of dollars to improve roads and bridges. His most lasting legacy, they say, will be his efforts to cap the state's greenhouse-gas emissions.
"If you look at this governor compared to all the other governors before him, he has accomplished as much if not more," said Adam Mendelsohn, a political adviser to Schwarzenegger. "People should not confuse his independence with an inability to build relationships. He's unafraid to take on anybody, and that's not easy for a lot of politicians to understand."
Schwarzenegger hasn't been seen much on the campaign trail since the June 8 primary, which suits some Republican activists just fine. "He calls himself the green governor, and I would agree with that," said Ira Forkish, who attended Whitman's victory party. "He's molding."
Fiorina and Whitman have kept their distance — especially Whitman, whose moderate political views have some conservatives calling her "Schwarzenegger in a skirt." It is a measure of the governor's unpopularity that she openly criticizes him, once telling the Sacramento Bee that despite a few notable accomplishments, "when you pull the lens all the way back, the truth is, the results haven't been very good."
Schwarzenegger has said he might not make any endorsements, which for him would not be unusual. Mendelsohn said his priority through November will be to defeat a ballot amendment aimed at suspending a landmark global warming law that Schwarzenegger views as one of his key accomplishments. Fiorina and Whitman have been critical of the law, which some conservatives have said will harm the economy.
"The legacy of that legislation will be one of economic wreckage," said Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.).
Schwarzenegger's go-it-alone style put him at odds with the legislature. When he appealed directly to voters with ballot initiatives, he got mixed results. Voters approved measures backed by Schwarzenegger to do away with party-specific primaries and create more competitive legislative districts, which were aimed at bringing more moderate politicians to the fore.
But in the face of rising unemployment and state fiscal woes, voters rejected his efforts to remake the budget and take on unions. He also failed to gain consensus from interest groups necessary to pass universal health care, a goal of his administration.
In the waning months of his governorship, Schwarzenegger has fashioned himself as an old-style reformer whose radical agenda will be vindicated by history. Indeed, many of his most significant accomplishments, such as redistricting reform and the primary system overhaul, will be felt in the long term.
He is mum about what he'll do after his term ends in December. (He is barred by term limits from running again.) Some speculate he will move into an advocacy role, perhaps on the environment. At 62, it is unlikely he will squeeze back in his cyborg suit for the movies. But he will make a brief comeback. In August, he has a cameo role alongside Sylvester Stallone in an action flick.
It's called "The Expendables."