Whitman has regularly backhanded Schwarzenegger on the trail, and in an interview, she criticizes him for having tried to do too many things. Contrasting herself to Schwarzenegger, Whitman says she understands that “you’re only as good as the people who work for you.”
But the people who advised and managed Schwarzenegger during his most dramatic failures, I point out, are now on her payroll, advising her on strategy. “In the end you have to be accountable for the people you hire,” she says, “and the advice you take or don’t take.”
Whitman, with her array of advisers and pollsters sifting the ones and zeros of the electorate, ultimately sees California as a numbers game. A GOP consultant I spoke with says Whitman versus Brown is really science versus art, and Whitman has “bought the laboratory.”
And the laboratory has figured out just about everything except … the story. As her GOP speech reaches its climax, Whitman addresses why she’s spending millions of dollars to win this election. “I have put my money into this race,” she acknowledges, “but more than that, I have put my heart and soul into this struggle.”
For a minute, there is a curious charge in the room. It sounds like she’s about to divulge an emotional purpose heretofore unseen in her ironsided campaign juggernaut.
“After twenty months, the pundits still ask why I am running for governor of California,” she says, echoing exactly what pundits in the press gallery are thinking.
“The reason I am running for governor of California is”—the $100 million moment of truth, the beating heart of Whitman’s passion, revealed—“I refuse to believe our state cannot be better than it is.”
“I say, ‘This is not an action movie, I’m sorry to disappoint you,’ ” says Arnold Schwarzenegger.
When he takes a seat at the end of the 25-foot conference table, he’s like a human boulder in an olive-green suit and red tie, wearing alligator loafers and a watch with a face roughly the size of a coffee mug.
“California will always be the dream state,” says Schwarzenegger, sitting in his wood-paneled office adorned with countless pictures of Ronald Reagan, his hero. “I never say anywhere that the dream is dead. Someone else said that or somebody put the words in my mouth, because I would never say that. Because to me, the dream is the hope that you have, and the hope and the dream and the vision is always bright.”
Nowadays, Schwarzenegger’s high-watt optimism can seem like a comic charade amid the state’s smoldering ruins. But even Schwarzenegger, the indefatigable optimist, the onetime “Governator” whose epic California story vaulted him to power in 2003, has the air of a weary actor after a long, disastrous production. Twenty-two percent approval rating. Given his budget woes, when he bids me heft his prop sword from the Conan the Barbarian film, kept in a case near his office door, his requisite punch line feels drained of a former thrust: “I use it to cut da budget.”
But Schwarzenegger is surprisingly candid about the pitfalls of the office he’s held for the term-limited seven years, a cautionary tale for the candidates vying to replace him. “The voters can change what is a priority very quickly,” he says, comparing the governing of California to, variously, steering the Titanic, skiing a slalom course, starring in a bad movie, and, of course, bodybuilding. When his goal was to become Mr. Universe in the late sixties, he explains, “nobody said in the middle, ‘Whoah, whoah, whoah, become the soccer champion.’ Wait a minute, I can’t now run as fast with these legs that are lifting 500 pounds! C’mon, don’t throw me off here. That’s why I got out of soccer.”
In this metaphor, the economic collapse was the surprise soccer challenge, which seemed to blow up Schwarzenegger’s efforts to slash the budget with his Conan sword while also passing progressive reforms, forcing him to make jobs the top, and really only, priority.
“But in the meantime, this Titanic,” he says. “You can only deviate a little bit, and you say, ‘Okay, I see the job thing, let me work on that also, but in the meantime don’t let me get off track here because I could be very successful with this.’ ”
Schwarzenegger’s decline in the polls is less about him than it is about a lost faith in the possibility of fixing California. The California Legislature, which requires a two-thirds vote to raise taxes or pass a budget, is composed of hard-left and hard-right factions, each forced into extremes by gerrymandering and term limits.
“You step on somebody’s else’s feet, and the war begins,” says Schwarzenegger. “And they try to derail you and make you look small and reduce you and spin it a different way. Instead of trying to be fiscally responsible, you’re taking food out of poor people’s mouths.”