‘The Body’ Slam: Will Schwarzenegger Be Undone Like Ventura?

Posted September 20, 2005 at 6:20pm

LOS ANGELES — They’re both bulky, blunt-talking celebrities. Both were elected governor and achieved early successes as centrist mavericks.

But one-time wrestler Jesse Ventura (I) of Minnesota left office in 2003 after one stormy, underachieving term. Now, with his popularity in decline, is California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) fated to experience a similar flameout? [IMGCAP(1)]

Politicos in both California and Minnesota agree that the two share several striking similarities, beginning with their celebrity profile and unconventional path to public office.

But few experts, at least at this point, are writing off the former bodybuilder and movie star as a failure, even though his re-election support dropped from 56 percent in February to 36 percent in late August, according to the Field Institute.

Though many of his problems stem from battles he’s chosen, the fact that Schwarzenegger is fully engaged in policy matters makes it unlikely that he will become a laughingstock. The California governor also benefits from a sizable war chest and from a party infrastructure unavailable to Ventura, an Independent with a shoestring party.

Still, if Schwarzenegger is to avoid Ventura’s fate, he will need to demonstrate why some striking similarities will not undercut his run for a full term in 2006.

Celebrityhood. Being famous guaranteed both Ventura and Schwarzenegger a media soapbox and fawning coverage, at least initially. But the spotlight tends to magnify errors.

“Celebrityhood ends up not being that durable a resource” when problems emerge, said Carleton College political scientist Steven Schier. “It’s not a formula that helps you get through sustained political adversity.”

Outside Interests. While Ventura had a penchant for running his mouth on TV and radio, Minnesotans finally lost patience when he signed up to broadcast XFL football. Many residents of his good-government state were aghast that he would take up a significant extracurricular activity while in office.

Schwarzenegger also faced an extracurricular problem when it became known that a previously announced consulting arrangement with Muscle & Fitness and Flex magazines would pay him $5 million over five years. The payments drew special criticism because

Schwarzenegger had vetoed a bill that would have placed regulations on the dietary supplement industry — the magazines’ biggest source of advertising revenue.

Few suggested that Schwarzenegger, even with his extensive real-estate and business holdings, was failing to focus on the job. But the suggestion that he vetoed legislation that could have hurt a major source of his outside income could actually be more damaging than Ventura’s XFL adventure.

“Jesse looked like a buffoon, but Arnold looked like he was hiding something,” said Dan Schnur, a Republican strategist in California. “The best thing he brought to California politics was the idea that he was better than all the sleaziness that permeated the system. Somehow, he needs to figure out a way to reclaim that.”

Of course, for the revelations to have any impact, California voters will have to remember the episode 14 months from now — and be bothered by it.

The Legislature. Though many in Minnesota praise Ventura for appointing a talented, bipartisan cabinet, the former wrestler had an awful relationship with the Legislature.

Minnesota politicos say Ventura’s prickly personality and penchant for demonizing lawmakers and lobbyists as “special interests” was not a recipe for thriving in politics. Blois Olson, co-publisher of the newsletter Politics in Minnesota, said Ventura probably figured that “his personality as a wrestler was always anti-establishment, so why not be that way in politics too?”

Schwarzenegger, too, has had a stormy relationship with legislators, but it has been ameliorated somewhat by his personal magnetism and gift for schmooze. While the fights he’s picked with teachers’ and nurses’ unions and their allies in the legislature have been a major factor in his dropping poll numbers, it’s usually business, not personal, for him.

To many, this suggests that Schwarzenegger has the capacity to bounce back. Despite recent history, negotiation with the Legislature seems to be Schwarzenegger’s “natural disposition,” said Harvey Englander, a California consultant who has worked with both Democrats and Republicans.

The Media. The only group to have worse relations with Ventura than legislators were members of the Minnesota press corps, whom the thin-skinned governor called “jackals.” While ordinary voters generally don’t care if a politician mistreats working scribes, the spat produced a steady stream of critical stories — and fed a vicious circle.

“When he started having trouble with the media, both parties thought he was vulnerable,” said Tom Foley, a former Democrat who ran for Congress as an independent allied with Ventura in 2000. “The media problems increased the likelihood that the legislature would attack him.”

California statehouse reporters, like their colleagues in Minnesota, are continually annoyed at how much more time and access Schwarzenegger gives to the national media. But Ventura was outspoken to a fault, while Schwarzenegger — coming from an entertainment industry in which stars can choose the questions they answer in advance — often seems overly massaged.

“You could go up to [former Republican Gov.] Pete Wilson and really just pick his brain on things,” said Eric Moses, a public relations consultant in Los Angeles who covered the Wilson administration for the City News Service. “You didn’t have this whole layer of flackery.”

The Public. Both Ventura and Schwarzenegger won with an aggressive, macho style that resonated within a public disenchanted by politics. For Ventura, that shtick wore out its welcome fairly quickly. Has Schwarzenegger’s?

On the one hand, there’s wide agreement that Schwarzenegger has far better skills at connecting with voters. “The roadshow is just incredible,” said one Democratic strategist. “He’ll stroll into a market and dominate it. He’s literally made for Hollywood.”

On the other hand, the poll numbers present clear evidence that his act is wearing thin. “The bravado, the name-calling isn’t working any more,” said Garry South, a Democratic consultant in California. Based on what he’s seen in focus groups, South said, “people are being turned off.”

The Party. If anything, Schwarzenegger’s re-election challenge is stiffer than Ventura’s was. He must first keep GOP conservatives happy enough to avoid a primary. Then he is likely to face only one serious opponent, unlike Ventura, who would have faced two had he sought a second term. He won his first race with a mere 34 percent.

Still, Schwarzenegger does have a genuine party to rely on, even if he’s too moderate for many GOP activists, and even if Republicans are a minority in the legislature. Indeed, right now, the GOP seems to be the main thing sustaining him: His recent veto of a bill to establish same-sex marriage is widely seen as a bid to shore up support among conservatives, even though doing so risks undercutting his backing among moderates and Democrats.

Even this dilemma leaves Schwarzenegger in a better position than Ventura. “If he was an independent, he would have no support by now,” said Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book.

Attention to governing. Beyond the backing of his party, the one factor that most clearly separates Schwarzenegger from Ventura is that the former seems driven by an interest in policy and governing. Schwarzenegger, Schnur said, is “not a sideshow or a cartoon.”

Most observers agree that no politician would stake his political career on such tedious issues as redistricting or do battle with feisty labor unions if he didn’t care about the outcome. Indeed, even as Democrats knock his tactics and the disarray within his bloated consulting team, they quietly give Schwarzenegger credit for attempting to tackle thorny issues.

For Sarah Janecek, the co-publisher of Politics in Minnesota, it’s imperative that Schwarzenegger keep that focus if he’s to avoid Ventura’s fate.

“It became clear that it wasn’t about the people of Minnesota — Jesse Ventura was always about Jesse Ventura,” she said. “My advice to Arnold is to keep his ego in check.”