The Terminator Vs. The Iron Man

California. New Mexico. Same Political Theory

What can New Mexico learn from the termination of Gov. Gray Davis in California? Not much, probably. We’re nine years ahead of California. We’ve already had our Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Gary Johnson, libertarian Republican, successful businessman, iron man triathlete, well married, no political experience, no previous government service: he was elected governor in 1994 by an angry populace that turned out a once-popular Democrat who had been in politics most of his life, Bruce King.

Why were New Mexicans angry?

The Democrats had become arrogant and withdrawn in Santa Fe. King, whose age was beginning to be a factor, had made some uncharacteristic mistakes. He had signed a gasoline tax increase earmarked for some non-highway spending (the equivalent of Davis’ California car tax). But more generally, he was perceived as too cozy with the Legislature, which he used to call “my board of directors.”

The Democratic legislative leaders, headed by Manny Aragon in the Senate and Raymond Sanchez in the House, were unpopular in the larger constituency. Johnson demonized “Manny and Ray,” cunningly running against them more than against the venerable King.

The new governor represented a new generation and the politics of image. He was relatively young, at 41, and fit. His creative television commercials simply showed the man, with the camera circling as he sat like some sort of Greek statue. Like Schwarzenegger, he was self-built — never having been a high school or college star coddled by athletic coaches. This was appealing to New Mexicans who, like Californians, are very much into personal sports and fitness.

As Schwarzenegger is The Terminator, Johnson was The Iron Man. I know, the comparison looks sort of pathetic, a billionaire former Mr. Universe versus a millionaire former Coors ski racer, but it’s proportional. California is the world’s fifth largest economy. up there with France and the boys. We’re a little further down the list, probably at the level of oil-producing Kazakhstan.

But the political theory is the same. Americans anywhere do not like being governed by professionals. When someone pulls himself up by his own cross-trainer laces and challenges the tired party of lobbyist-controlled lawmakers, there will be a voter-approved junta.

There are similarities in the details too:

— New Mexico voters, for one, overlooked some personal transgressions in Gary’s youthful past. He acknowledged, in an early Journal questionnaire, using marijuana and cocaine — not just experimentally but repeatedly. The Democrats did not exploit this Johnson negative. It was probably a wise strategy, because in California the Democrats did exploit Schwarzenegger’s past as a young groper, and the backlash (“Dirty politics,” said one voter on national TV) may have hurt them, particularly since Arnold showed strength in apologizing rather than appearing to run for cover.

— California’s most liberal major city, San Francisco, went against the recall, just as New Mexico’s most liberal city, Santa Fe, always voted against Johnson. Santa Fe is the home of the Democratic Legislature. San Francisco elected the former veteran speaker of the General Assembly, Wyllie Brown, as its mayor.

— The California results seemed to show something that New Mexico politicians have know from the start: Don’t exploit ethnicity. Don’t pander to minorites. A significant group of Hispanic voters resent it. Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante did it, and his ratings plummeted.

So, far from New Mexico learning a Schwarzenegger lesson, California could learn from us. What California can expect is a standoff. In New Mexico, the Republican outsider could get nothing through the vindictive Legislature, and in turn the anti-government governor vetoed almost everything of special importance to the Democrats. His veto record is one for the books: something approaching 50 per cent of all bills that reached his desk in the first two regular sessions.

Government was partially disabled — or so it would seem from the examples of Taxation and Revenue Department inefficiencies (deliberate or not) and environmental and Medicaid lapses. But there were no tax increases, Manny Aragon was demoted, and Raymond Sanchez was defeated. The established order was rattled. Johnson served his purpose, it seemed, and as a bonus he did what he could to build some highways on credit. Along the way, he was reelected. No problem.

From this New Mexico background, assuming similar resistance by California Democrats, I would predict a tenure for Schwarzenegger comparable to the two terms of that other California “actor,” except Schwarzenegger, who is not a “natural born citizen,” cannot do like Ronald Reagan and become president.

But there’s more to the New Mexico story. Johnson went out of office, tired of politics, abandoned by his own party because of his libertarian stand on drugs, interested only in extreme mountain climbing. He summited Everest. Along came a strong Democrat, out of power in Washington, talking of “eight years of gridlock.” Bill Richardson won the governorship by a landslide, restoring the Democratic Party in most of its traditions, some dubious. And the chastened but grateful Legislature passed anything he asked for.

What’s entirely different is the relative economies. New Mexico, more than any other state, is supported by federal spending, particularly for the government labs. The huge federal transfer insulates the state from economic ups and downs that affect the rest of the nation. The mixed-party Congressional delegation is uniquely crucial. What state government does or does not do is trivial here compared with world’s fifth largest economy, which is in trouble — and the trouble is spreading.