Monday, June 13, 2005



Harold Meyerson
Washington Post

The Great Republican Overreach has hit a wall.

In the Senate, Bill Frist's plan to ram through a succession of hard-right judges by eliminating the filibuster has been undone by a coalition of centrists. Meanwhile, the president's plan to privatize Social Security has been relentlessly losing support as the American people balk at the notion of trading in their insurance for a retirement based on risk.

And in California, Arnold Schwarzenegger's approval ratings have plunged 20 points -- to 40 percent -- in the wake of his singularly reckless attack on the pensions and working conditions of the state's nurses, police officers, firefighters and teachers. Republicans must now even confront the possibility that a Democrat could unseat the Great Orange Hope next year. (Somehow, the governor has retained his metallic glow -- the word "tan" doesn't really describe it -- during the wettest year California has known in a century.)

The D.C. GOP has mistaken its narrow but effective control of all branches of government for a popular mandate to roll back the New Deal and roll out a new era of social conservatism. The L.A. GOP has mistaken Arnold's ascension, in the Gray Davis recall election, for a popular mandate to hack away at the public sector. Never mind that Schwarzenegger did not run on any such program, that while he railed at politicians, he never said a word about the public institutions on which Californians depend.

Schwarzenegger's right turn, though, should not have come as a surprise to Arnoldologists. The Governator has always been something of an economic libertarian, though during the campaign and his early days in office, more attention was paid to his social libertarianism -- for instance, his pro-choice stance. Some (chiefly libertarians) have argued that this across-the-board libertarianism was exactly the formula that would revive Republicanism in a state such as California. They couldn't have been more wrong. With the burgeoning Latino population clamoring for more and better public schools, beachgoers insisting on coastal protections, and gridlocked motorists yelping for more roads or more rail, the demand for activist government and adequate public services in California remains high.

One example of this demand is a law, signed by Gray Davis and slated to have taken effect on Jan. 1 of this year, that establishes a ratio of one nurse to every five patients in California hospitals. Two days after last year's November election, though, Schwarzenegger suspended the regulation, incurring the wrath of a number of groups, but none more so than the California Nurses Association (CNA). This proved to be a huge mistake. For a decade, the CNA had played a gadfly role in California politics, but in its battle against Schwarzenegger, it has become the little union that could. (The CNA has 60,000 members, up from 20,000 10 years ago.) Brandishing banners proclaiming "Hands Off Our Ratios," nurses began demonstrating at Arnold's appearances. Confronted with a gaggle of uppity nurses at his women's conference last December, Schwarzenegger ad-libbed: "Don't mind the special interests. I kick their butts every day in Sacramento."

Nothing could have been better calculated to put the nurses on the warpath. In response they began showing up, in uniforms and in numbers, at every one of Arnold's mega-dollar fundraisers with financiers and industry magnates. "I've been frustrated with the labor movement for letting workers be defined as special interests," says Rose Ann DeMoro, the CNA's executive director. "By focusing on his fundraisers, the nurses have forced the press to look at who, exactly, are the real special interests."

This spring, when Schwarzenegger threatened to back an initiative that substituted 401(k)s for pensions for public employees (and that eliminated survivor benefits for the widows and orphans of police officers and firefighters killed on the job), the nurses were joined in the streets -- and in television ads -- by teachers and firefighters. At such demonstrations, the cops have proved particularly helpful, positioning the demonstrators, for instance, in the most mediagenic locations. "It's kind of fun having the police with us," says DeMoro, a longtime troublemaker unaccustomed to such cooperation.

Facing a collapse in the polls, Arnold backed off his pension-abolition plan, though he is threatening to support another initiative this November that would make it more difficult for public-sector unions to raise political funds from their members. (An earlier iteration of this initiative failed at the ballot box in 1998.) His reversal of the nurse-patient ratios seems almost certain to be overturned in the courts -- as it already has been in the court of public opinion.
So, as George W. Bush has run smack into the public's undiminished support for social insurance, Arnold Schwarzenegger has run afoul of its undiminished support for public services and public servants.

From sea to shining sea, the Republican offensive has, for now, stalled.


Blogger J. Marquis said...

Good article. I think in both cases you see the public initially getting sold a bill of goods and then gradually realizing the true cost of the plan and rebelling.

3:51 PM  

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