If the Bush Administration were ever to come to the conclusion that lying, evasion and coverup weren't working, an alternative style of leadership was on offer this week in California.
Fresh from his trouncing at the hands of the California voters last week, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger displayed a refreshing bit of candor and responsibility this week. In a series of statements, he accepted blame for the special election debacle, in which all of the propositions he backed lost by margins from 5% to 24%; he acknowledged that the voters wanted problems to be solved in Sacramento and not at the ballot box; he admitted that his demeaning characterizations of opponents had backfired; and he promised to work with legislators and critics, backing his words with fence-mending deeds. This stands in sharp contrast to president Bush, who continued to paint critics of his failed Iraq war as traitors who are trying to rewrite history.
Of course there are real differences. Arnold faces a Legislature that is controlled by the Democrats, in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by a healthy margin. He faces reelection next year, unlike Bush. And this is probably in large part public relations. But still, Schwarzenegger's willingness to accept full responsibility for calling the wildly unpopular special election (against the advice of his wife, Maria Shriver), a move that he acknowledged had alienated his supporters as well as envigorated his opponents, was a smart as well as welcome move. As quoted by the San Francisco Chronicle on Friday, Arnold compared it to a movie that has bombed:
"I've always listened very carefully to the people. That's something you have to do in the movie business," he said. "If one of the movies goes in the toilet, you know it was the wrong story, and that's not the kind of movie you want to do. You then change."
Not only did Arnold meet with Legislators, he promised to work with them on budget priorities such as a transportation and infrastructure bond, a revised redistricting measure, and increased education spending. Friday his adminsitration dropped its appeal of a ruling that invalidated his suspension of lower staffing ratios for nurses, the action that triggered the massive protests by nurses, then teachers, firefighters and other union members, that dogged him for the past year. At the very least he has bought himself an opportunity to return to his original, successful, strategy of negotiating with Democrats.
There is no doubt that Schwarzenegger faces a very different political landscape than George W. Bush. And yet his actions stand in stark contrast to Bush's style of never acknowledging or even seeming to recognize mistakes, never consulting Democrats, playing only to the base, and using Rovian dirty tricks. Bush has an entirely different temperament than Arnold's sunny optimism. Talk as he might about how voters like optimism, the Bush Administration has relied much more on fear as a motivating force than hope. Bush himself radiates insecurity on a personal as well as intellectual level.
But there may be more than coincidence in the fact that Arnold, like California's last sunny politician, Ronald Reagan, came form the movie industry, where attention to a fickle audience is a key to success. By contrast, Bush, Cheney and many of the other top Bush Administration figures come from a "cartel capitalist" business background in which, as Josh Marshall's prescient early 2003 Washington Monthly article on Vice President Cheney and his succession of inept judgments points out, success comes not from working to please customers or win the cooperation of suppliers, but from "cementing relationships with and winning the support of a handful of powerful decision-makers."
Now Bush finds himself trapped by this style of leadership. Decisions and information are held closely, mistakes are never admitted, flaws are covered up from the shareholders for as long as possible, and when the edifice collapses from the sheer weight of its deceptions, as with Enron the collapse can cascade beyond salvage.
Unlike Arnold, Bush has left himself no way to change, no opportunity to embrace and work with his opposition, because to do so would expose what must remain hidden. Not only can Bush not pivot like Arnold, he cannot clean house like Ronald Reagan after Iran-Contra, unless he replaces not just his Defense Secretary but his Vice-President. Is Bush facing the fate of that other late-but-not-lamented California politician who he so much resembles, Richard Nixon?