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Now voters have only themselves to blame

Sunday, October 12, 2003

Crotchety Californians, after months of virtually thought-free deliberation, have decided there is nothing wrong with their state that a homicidal futuristic cyborg with a Teutonic accent can't fix.

As for the rest of us, it's time to first consider the possible ramifications of The Governator.

Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor of America's largest state this week, lifting a groping paw to the controls of what some define as the fifth largest economy in the world. Two-thirds of the people who voted for him believe he will not have to raise taxes to rectify a $10 billion budget deficit. They are psychotic. One academic has called it "a rescue fantasy."

This is what happens when you get out the vote.

Coupla years ago in Minnesota, they got out the vote big time. Millions of veteran nonvoters flocked to the polls in the goobernatorial race. They elected a pro wrestler. Tuesday in California, they got out the vote. Millions who rarely, if ever, vote, by a 64-36 percent margin preferred Kindergarten Cop to Cruz Bustamante. Bustamante had labored under the ridiculous notion that as lieutenant governor, he was somehow more qualified than Arnold.

Forty-four percent of those exit-polled said they'd made up their minds more than a month ago. In other words, when actual issues were put on the table in the past few weeks, they'd already tuned out. This is what passes for citizenship in the 21st century.

The best case scenario for the Schwarzenegger administration is for Arnold to go down in history as the most important (if nowhere near the most competent) governor in history, important because Arnold was somehow the one pretend politician, in our hour of darkest ignorance, who awakened Americans to what's become of our civic life, our public discourse, and to where our sprawling national apathy has led us.

Perhaps some 25th-century history book (if they still have books) will have a chapter titled "The Schwarzenegger Phenomenon: America ends its long dazed journey into cluelessness." Yes, and perhaps a weasel will win the Nobel Prize for physics.

The worst case scenario, and a scenario eminently more plausible, is that elected officials nationwide will become substantially more skittish about making difficult policy decisions for fear of triggering a recall, that they will never really be able to stop campaigning and that the bitter political partisanship that exploded and ruptured the legislative process during the Clinton-Lewinsky affair will continue to steamroll any attempt at reasonable negotiation on and careful resolution of public issues.

The recall election that brought down Gov. Gray Davis and inserted Arnold was a small-time Republican fantasy until millionaire San Diego legislator Darrell Issa threw a few million dollars at it. Some 48 hours before polls even opened, California Democrat Zoe Lofgren warned of an instant retaliation recall. And, Lofgren told The New York Times, "I don't think there is any way to stop it."

Democrats may have no choice. Republicans have gotten so adept at challenging elections, it's hard to imagine that a close presidential election next November that doesn't go Bush's way won't be thrown into the courts again.

This is tragic, but while the politicians engage in the most divisive public rhetoric, the public and the media have no moral base for objection because they are both immensely culpable in the enabling climate. In America today, most serious public issues are debated by parties on the extreme opposite edges of those issues. The moderate and often perfectly sensible people in the middle, the vast majority that could enact viable compromise, are instead watching "Everybody Loves Raymond."

In California, in Pennsylvania, in Washington, D.C., and in so many other places, there simply is no centrist constituency.

To quote the great social observer and comic George Carlin, "You know the one group I never criticize? Politicians. Politicians are put there by the public. Garbage in, garbage out. You get the leadership you deserve."

The media are equally bad. The thunder you hear in the distance is from hordes of short-attention-span editors and producers and reporters and columnists fleeing California, lest they be required to illuminate the complex economic issues that brought the Schwarzenegger Phenomenon to the table in the first place, rather than just provide a shameless conduit for celebrity culture.

Arnold Schwarzenegger cannot become president but only because he wasn't born in the United States. If he could run, he could win, even if he knows nothin' about nothin'. We've already proven that.


Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.

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