Another Arnold in this California recall? Would it even matter?

By Garry South

June 2, 2021

The Hill

Much of the speculation surrounding the impending recall vote on California Gov. Gavin Newsom has centered on whether another Arnold Schwarzenegger-type figure would enter the race and alter the dynamic, as happened in the 2003 recall that ripped Gov. Gray Davis from office.

When Caitlyn Jenner announced her candidacy, some of the over-hyped coverage suggested she might be the Arnold of this recall. But her stumbling start and unforced errors pretty quickly deflated that notion. And recent polling by UC Berkeley put numbers to Jenner’s plight: only 6 percent of voters indicated they were inclined to vote for her, versus an astonishing 76 percent who said they weren’t.

So, if not Jenner, then who?

Dwayne (“The Rock”) Johnson? Vin Diesel? Hulk Hogan? “The Incredible Hulk,” Lou Ferrigno? Fabio, maybe? I jest with some of these names, but the real question is: Would it even matter if another world-famous actor or athlete got into this race? We need to remember that California’s last action-figure-as-governor act didn’t end well.

Yes, Schwarzenegger was elected in the 2003 recall, and he was easily reelected in 2006 against an inept, unlikable Democratic opponent. But by the time his seven-year governorship came to an end, Schwarzenegger was widely viewed by Californians as a bullying, blustering, bragging buffoon, a caricature of his Terminator persona, with his job approval ratings in the 20s. Voters were sick of his name-calling, his cheesy publicity stunts and photo-ops, and wobbling back and forth between being a right-winger and a moderate.

There were no fond-farewell going-away parties before he turned the reins over to Jerry Brown, except maybe among his own paid staff. The NPR headline the day he left office in 2011 said it all: “No Hollywood Ending to Schwarzenegger’s Term.”

A profile published on January 1, 2011, in Los Angeles magazine, with the sub-head “The Rise and Fall of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger” summed it up nicely:

“As Arnold Schwarzenegger steps down this month, California voters can only marvel that a leader of such apparent strength is leaving the Golden State such a weakling — its institutions eroded and its finances more of a mess than when he took over from Gray Davis…[Few] would have dared predict that by his last summer in office, the governor who had entered the statehouse a movie star would bottom out with a 22 percent public approval rating, tying Davis for the lowest recorded approval rating [of any governor] in California history.”

Plus, that wasn’t even Schwarzenegger’s low. When it was revealed after he left office that he had fathered a son out of wedlock with his family housekeeper, his numbers went into the sub-basement. A Field Poll published in June of 2011 under the headline “Schwarzenegger tanks after revelation,” found his approval at just 20 percent, and disapproval at an astronomical 75 percent.

Of course, there was also the more recent national sequel: a reality TV show host with not a day’s experience in government or governing being elected president of the United States, never reaching 50 percent job approval rating, getting impeached twice, and being thrown out on his ear after just one term.

So, while all the musings about “Is there another Arnold out there” are kind of fun, let’s not forget that — in terminology Schwarzenegger himself would understand — Californians have seen that movie before, and they didn’t like how it ended.

Garry South is a California-based Democratic strategist and commentator who managed Gray Davis’s successful campaigns for governor of that state in 1998 and 2002 and was senior political advisor to Gov. Davis.