Arnold held another of his crowd-wades and media scrums today, at the California State Fair in Sacramento. It was slightly more organized than the Huntington Beach event a couple of weeks ago, but the effect was hardly different. He appeared at a staged voter-registration booth with volunteers set up as props registering voters and signing up to register. He said a few words about the importance of registering to vote, tossed a few Tee-shirts into the crowd and then went into the fair, where he was mobbed by fans and well-wishers before and after a short question and answer, or question and statement, exchange with the press. These things are becoming symbolic of a campaign that is operating on at least two levels. On one level is Arnold’s relationship with the political press, which is arms-length, to say the least. He appears sporadically, usually in a state of commotion, and reporters shout questions at him which he usually declines to answer, or simply launches into a full-blown filibuster getting across the message points he wants to deliver. Asked today why he is taking money from the special interests when he said he would not do so, Arnold simply defined away the question, saying that the Indian tribes and the unions are special interests while his well-heeled donors are just nice people who want to help him out. “The contributions come in, favors go out, the people suffer,” he said of Gov. Davis. Then, in what is becoming the signature Schwarzenegger device, he repeated a statement over and over and chopped his hand for emphasis, making an arc across his audience from right to left, like a sprinkler watering a lawn. “This administration is not representing you,” he said, chopping to his right, “It’s not representing you, it’s not representing you, it’s not representing you. It’s representing the special interests.”
His relationship with the public, meanwhile, is far more intimate. He all but dives into the crowds, shaking hands, holding babies, signing autographs. He beams his broad smile, agrees with most everything everyone says, leads people to believe that he is one with them. Today he told one woman that the children and the schools would be his top priority, and that he supports “more teachers, more classrooms…everything.” Another voter urged him to support “higher wages” – and Arnold launched into a story about his days working with his hands, as a bricklayer. He knows how it is for working people, he said. He did not climb his way up through the halls of Sacramento. But of course, while Arnold might support “higher wages” as a concept (who doesn’t?), he does not, as far as we know, support any government mandate that would seek to increase the minimum wage or create a living wage. Although I have seen candidates tell the truth in these situations (Bill Simon among them), it is probably not reasonable to expect a politician to volunteer a disagreeable position. An honest answer might be that he will do all he can to help the private sector create high-paying jobs. But Arnold doesn’t even offer that level of specificity. A question from a nearby reporter about the prevailing wage – the government-mandated wage standard that forces public agencies to pay what amount to union wages on construction projects – goes unanswered. So too do questions about the 8-hour-day overtime standard and about the state’s new paid family leave program, which business groups say should top the list of anyone looking to lift oppressive government regulations off their backs. He offered a few more statistics and a new anecdote illustrating problems in the workers compensation system for injured workers, but still no proposals for how to fix the troubled program.
With each of these events, and with each turned down interview request, the press grows more and more frustrated, and you see that in some of the coverage of his campaign stops. It will surely be a major theme this week if Arnold, as advertised, ducks the first debate Wednesday among the major candidates. But Arnold clearly believes that he doesn’t need the press, and he doesn’t need to answer reporters’ questions. He gets on the television news whether his answers are on point or not, and he acts as if he doesn’t believe that many voters read newspapers. I still think he has created an unnecessary buzz around the campaign, a message that is repeated so often and so widely that it must be reaching the electorate: he is unwilling or unable to answer tough questions. By extension, the message is that he is unprepared to govern. And given that his greatest potential weakness is the voters’ sense that he’s not ready for prime time politics, his strategy only seems to feed that impression. I am not among those who believe a candidate or government official has an “obligation” to give time to the political press. But neither do I think Arnold is serving his own interests by being so dismissive of the people who buy ink by the barrel. He just seems to be making trouble for himself.