Wednesday, December 06, 2006


Chutes and Ladders was always one of my favorite board games as a kid. Since it required absolutely no skill, it was right in my wheelhouse. Truly, my affection for that game foreshadowed that, as an adult, whenever I went to Vegas, I would also head for the slot machines and never play anything else. Three cheers for blind luck!

In the game of life, however, Chutes and Ladders involves a lot more than luck. Just look at the trajectories of the political careers of our nation’s two leading Chief Executives. I’m talking about “The Decider,” President George W. Bush, and the “Governator,” Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Many liberals like to claim that George W. Bush has failed at everything he’s done, whether it involves attending school or running a business. But it’s difficult to deny that as Governor of Texas, the man was anything but a failure. W hitched his wagon to a man named Bob Bullock, the state’s Lieutenant Governor. With the Republican Bush and the Democrat Bullock working together, they were able to build successful coalitions on many issues. At times, they failed, but not for the reasons you might think. Consider the following comments by liberal writer Molly Ivins, one of Bush’s most persistent critics:

“In 1997 [Bush] fought like a Trojan for what was actually a Democratic plan to make taxes fairer, specifically in an effort to pay for public schools. He lost. Bush couldn't deliver his own party on that one. But anyone who wants to write him off as a disengaged part-timer should know he was so fully involved in that fight, he could have been a floor manager the way he was twisting arms, calling in favors, busting balls, the entire panoply of power plays.”

Recognize that person-stage? I wouldn’t think so. He was around when Bush was going up the ladder, when he truly could style himself a “uniter, not a divider.” Bush prided himself in being the Governor of the entire state of Texas – Democrats as well as Republicans – rather than a power politician whose partisanship arrives with him everywhere he travels.

I’m less comfortable here commenting on Bush as a President, but suffice it to say that his poll numbers aren’t quite the same as his numbers in Texas, when he won re-election in a landslide. Suffice it also to say that the “chute” in which he finds himself has nothing to do with Democrats, because they are invisible in his Administration. The idea of him trying today to ram through “a Democratic plan to make taxes fairer,” doesn’t pass the laugh test. This is an era of one party ruling, the other party whining, and the country … well … suffering. Even the President admits publicly that these aren’t halcyon days for America.

On the other coast, you can hardly blame Ahnald from trying the bicep flaring, power-politician approach when he came into office. He had promised to stand up to the establishment politicians – liberals, mostly – who had been running Sacramento. And why not stand up to them with the force of Hercules? This, after all, was the same man who arrived in liberal Hollywood and sacked it like a Roman General. Talk about the victor netting the spoils -- at the top of his Hollywood ladder, he even nabbed himself a Kennedy for a bride. Why not come into the Governor’s mansion and show some of the same macho self-confidence that worked so magically in So-Cal?

The flexing act worked for a little while in the Central Valley, but in 2005, it came crashing down on our hero, and his chute became as steep as his former ladder. Pectoral Man called for a Special Election in which the electorate would vote on several initiatives. One would have limited state spending and given our hero greater power to slash the budget, one would have allowed for the redrawing of congressional and state legislative districts, another would have made teachers have to work longer to attain tenure, still another would have limited political spending by unions of government employees. Strangely enough, the people finally body-slammed Arnold. So here he was, alone and red-faced in his mansion, surrounded by a sea of California blue.

It must have dawned on The Governator that if California keeps voting Democrat every time there’s a contest for the Presidency, maybe, just maybe, there’s more to the state than fat cats from Orange County. You’d think he could have figured that out prior to November of 2005, but at least he eventually figured it out. It’s now 2006, and we’re witnessing a new Arnold. He’s no longer opposed to raises in the minimum wage. He’s proposed lots of spending on education specifically, and public works generally. And he’s the toast of the New York Times for his plan to “terminate” greenhouse gases.

The new Arnold is working with state legislators across the aisle much like Governor Bush once did. He is creating the impression of being a political moderate. And guess what? He ascended the ladder once again in public opinion polls.

Who could have predicted it? Well, actually, just about anyone. Americans tend to like politicians who show their ability and willingness to build bi-partisan support and aren’t so easily pigeon-holed as either “right wingers” or “left wingers.” There are exceptions – another California Governor comes to mind -- but Mr. Reagan was beloved because he held a strong, positive vision for America and communicated that vision clearly and openly. Whether or not you liked that vision, you had to respect the gravitas of the man who held it.

Men like Reagan – or his liberal counterpart, FDR – don’t come around that often. Others try to replicate their successes by being equally extreme, but generally end up looking like children, rather than adults. We have two years left in the Bush Administration. My recommendation is that if the powers that be want to get anything done – and I mean anything – they might want to find the ghost of the late Bob Bullock and listen to what he has to say. He’d start by arguing that without widespread Democratic support, the only place for the Administration to go is further downward. Given all the problems we face internationally, environmentally, and otherwise, we simply can’t afford that outcome, no matter how much the pundits on Comedy Central might enjoy the ride.

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