Friday, June 03, 2005


If you look at Governor Schwarzenegger's recent polling charts, you see an Approval line that has, in less time than it takes to qualify a ballot initiative, simply gone off a cliff. After coasting along on the tailwind of a voter approval rating that arced as high as the 70s, he hit a downdraft of epic proportions, from a robust 60 percent approval among all adults in January to a one-term-indicator 40 percent in April. On the political landscape, those numbers constitute a nine-point quake, representing the loss of fully one-third of the governor's popular support in the space of four months. In a world where it has taken over two years of rising body counts in a false-auspices war to let the air out of George Bush's numbers, and where White House infidelity and impeachment actually boosted Clinton's, how does this happen?

We Americans are stubbornly defensive of the choices we have made as voters, because to revise downward our opinion of those we cast ballots for is to raise the possibility that we were saps and suckers who were taken in by campaign slickery and misrepresentation. It takes a lot to drag us to that point of painful acknowledgment. Usually a grand jury indictment at the very least, or a Paris Hiltonesque video playing on the Internet, or a drunken shooting spree. Short of that, we are remarkably loath to give up on our elected officials. There are instances of our having re-elected officeholders who were, in point of fact, no longer alive. What could our governor have done that shrinks a politician's poll numbers worse than death?

The state has suffered no massive job losses, financial scandals, energy crises, or even natural disasters during his tenure. He has turned out to be not quite what most of us thought he was, and not nearly what many of us hoped he was, but that description applies to so many of our elected officials that it's a wonder more of us don't move to New Zealand. True, he's been taking money from vested interests and influence brokers in amounts and at a pace that would burn out a hand calculator, but after all, we tolerated over five years of that in Grey Davis before turning on him. A lot of us are apparently disenchanted with the way he is addressing such issues as the budget deficit, our school system, and state employee pension funds, but we've rarely been enchanted by any politician on those issues. He has tended to be a blowhard, racially abrasive, simplistic, and adversarial, but those characteristics have kept plenty of people in elected office in California, especially in the red sections of Big Blue.

The explanation for the Governor’s popularity freefall, I believe, lies with a quality he shares with Michael Jackson. It’s not that each has been accused of sexual improprieties with persons in no position to resist or protest, or even that what Michael is accused of doing to young males is, in a manner of speaking, what a growing number of voters apparently feel that Schwarzenegger is trying to do to the state's nurses, firefighters and teachers. The fatal quality they both share is that of celebrity. Schwarzenegger was not elected on the basis of experience, intellect, or political agenda. He was elected because he was Arnold Schwarzenegger. His print media base was People, not Newsweek or National Review, and his bully TV pulpit wasn’t Nightline or even Fox News, but The Tonight Show.

He ran not as a politician but as a celebrity, and was elected on that basis. Now he is being judged on that basis. His problem is that, as reluctant as we are to abandon those we’ve elected to office, we are enthusiastically ready to reject and repudiate those whom we’ve elevated to celebrity status. We are notorious for routinely conferring hot phenomenon status on some human curio such as Ben Affleck, Richard Simmons or Britney Spears, only to abruptly turn against them, sometimes for discernible reasons, sometimes just because. Almost overnight, names that just last year shipped platinum or were displayed above the film’s title have become fodder for Dennis Miller, slang for “embarrassingly over.”

We’ve seen plenty of popularity cave-ins like Schwarzenegger’s before, but those buried in the rubble weren’t politicians, they were the BeeGees and Roseanne and Sly Stallone and Vanna White and the King of Unpop, Michael. Judging by his numbers, we evidently regard Arnold as one of their tribe, and not a member of the clan of the elected. In short, the Governor’s breathtaking favorability reversal doesn’t echo the experience of Richard Nixon or Jimmy Carter. It just echoes that of Burt Reynolds.


Blogger ....J.Michael Robertson said...

This may or may not be an on-the-other-hand. I read or heard or possibly misread or misheard -- so much of life now consists of wing shots -- that a tactic the Dems should employ against AS is to always refer to him as the Governor and not Arnold. The notion is that, even more than with politicians, celebrity-through- entertainment promises a kind of intimacy, a sense of psychic proximity to the celebrity. Arnold is our friend. The Governor is the man in Sacramento. So, the reasoning goes, to emphasize that he is the Governor does not raise him in our estimation but causes us to think about him as merely a politician, someone who should be doing something more than reliving the outtakes from Conan. I don't know if this is true. Your reasoning is that simple celebrity fades in many instances because that kind of celebrity is simply the flavor of the day, and when the day is over we want a new flavor. Hmm. Maybe. I'm on the wing here. Take aim.

June 15, 2005 at 10:54 PM  

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