When Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor after Gray Davis was recalled in 2003, Schwarzenegger was the rare elected official who believed with some reason that he had nothing to lose and behaved accordingly. When presented with the chance to pursue an agenda that violated his own narrow political self-interest for the sake of the public interest, he tended to leap at it. "There were a lot of times when we said, "You just can't do that," said his former chief of staff, Susan Kennedy, a lifelong Democrat, whose hiring was one of those things a Republican governor was not supposed to do. "He was always like, 'I don't care.' 90% of the time it was a good thing."
Two years into his tenure in mid-2005 he had tried everything he could think of to persuade individual California State legislators to vote against the short-term desires of their constituents for the greater long-term good of all. "To me there were shocking moments," he said. "Having sped past the Do Not Enter sign we were now flying through intersections without pausing. I can't help but notice that if we weren't breaking the law by going the wrong way down a one-way street we would be breaking the law by running stop signs. You want to do pension reform for the prison guards and all of a sudden the Republicans are all lined up against you. It was really incredible and it happened over and over: people would say to me, 'Yes, this is the best idea! I would love to vote for it! But if I vote for it some interest group is going to be angry with me so I won't do it.' I couldn't believe people could actually say that. You had soldiers dying in Iraq and Afghanistan and they didn't want to risk their political lives by doing the right thing."
Schwarzenegger came into office with boundless faith in the American people — after all, they had elected him — and he figured he could always appeal directly to them. That was his trump card and he played it. In November 2005 he called a special election that sought votes on four reforms: limiting state spending, putting an end to the gerrymandering of legislative districts, limiting public employee union spending on elections, and lengthening the time it took for public school teachers to get tenure. All four propositions addressed directly or indirectly the state's large and growing financial mess. All four were defeated. The votes weren't even close. From then until the end of his time in office he was effectively gelded: the legislators now knew that the people who had elected them to behave exactly the way they were already behaving were not going to undermine them when appealed to directly. The people of California might be irresponsible, but at least they were consistent.
A compelling book called "California Crackup" describes this problem more generally. It's written by a pair of journalists and non-partisan think tank scholars, Joe Mathews and Mark Paul, and they explain among other things why Arnold Schwarzenegger's experience as governor was going to be unlike any other experience in his career: he was never going to win. California has organized itself, not accidentally, into highly partisan legislative districts. It elected highly partisan people to office and then required those people to reach a two thirds majority to enact any new tax or meddle with big spending decisions. On the off chance that they found some common ground, it could be pulled out from under them by voters through the initiative process. Throw in term limits — no elected official now serves in California government long enough to fully understand it — and you have a recipe for generating maximum contempt for election officials. Politicians are elected to get things done and are prevented by the system from doing it, leading the people to grow even more disgusted with them. "The vicious cycle of contempt," as Mark Paul calls it. California state government was designed mainly to maximize the likelihood that voters will continue to despise the people they elect.
But when you look below the surface, Mark Paul adds, the system is actually very good at giving Californians what they want. "What all the polls show," says Paul, "is that people want services and not have to pay for them. And that's exactly what they have now."
As much as they claim to despise their government, the citizens of California share its defining trait: the need for debt. The average Californian in 2011 had debts of $78,000 against an income of $43,000. The behavior was unsustainable but in its way, for the people, it worked brilliantly. For their leaders, even in the short term, it works less well. They ride into office on great false hopes and quickly discover they can do nothing to justify those hopes.
In Paul's view Arnold Schwarzenegger had been the best test to date of the notion that the problem with California politics was personal. That all the system needed to fix itself was an independent minded leader willing to rise above petty politics and exert the will of the people. "The recall was, in and of itself, an effort by the people to say that a new governor — a different person — could solve the problem," says Paul. But, "He tried every way of dealing with the crisis in services. He tried to act like a Republican. He tried to act like a Democrat. He tried making nice with the Legislature. When that didn't work he called them girlie men. When that didn't work he went directly to the people. And the people voted against his proposals."
— Michael Lewis, "Boomerang"