Paging Gov. Garamendi, Or Arnold’s Severe Case Of Potomac Fever

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Gov. Schwarzenegger used an appearance on ABC’s "This Week" Sunday morning to hint that he has interest in leaving his current job to serve in Barack Obama’s cabinet as some sort of energy-environment czar. The McCain-endorsing governor also talked about an Obama presidency as a fait accompli–he referred to "when," not "if," the Illinois senator is president. I suspect you’ll see an effort in the hours and days ahead by the governor and his aides to try to back away from what he told interviewer George Stephanopoulous and talk about his commitment to Californians. They’ll note that he called the discussion "hypothetical" and was merely explaining his desire to serve American governments of either party. But I defy anyone to watch the show or read the transcript and tell me with any confidence that this governor intends to serve out the rest of his term, which runs through the end of 2010.

Here’s the exchange. Stephanopoulous showed a clip of Obama praising the governor’s environmental "leadership."

STEPH: "Newsweek" reported he might want you to be his energy czar. Would you be interested?

SCHWARZ: I don’t think about taking on a national role. There’s so many challenges we have in California.

STEPH: If he were president and he called?

SCHWARZ: It’s hypothetical. I’m always ready to help in any way I can the United States. I’ve committed myself to be a public servant. I said to myself, this country has given me everything. It’s my time now, I’m through with the acting and all of those things that I’ve done, body building, even though I love all of those things still. For me, it’s important to give something back, do my work without getting paid, and give something back. No matter what i do. If i have this position or not, I will be traveling around the world and I will be promoting to be energy dependent, renewables, solar, windmills, all of those things, protecting the environment, protecting the oceans."

..So if that non-denial denial didn’t make his intentions clear, there was then this:

STEPHANOPOULOS: If he were president and he called, you would at least take that call?

SCHWARZENEGGER: I would take his call now, I will take his call when he’s president. Any time. Remember, no matter who is president, I don’t see this as a political thing, I see this as we always have to help no matter what the administration is."

The background: There’s a long history of California governors getting "Potomac fever," and becoming interested in running for the White House. George Shultz, the former Secretary of State who serves as a crucial behind-the-scenes advisor to Schwarzengger, has long talked up the fact that Schwarzenegger was immune to the disease since, as an immigrant, he can’t serve as president. But Schwarzenegger is showing signs of Potomac fever nonetheless. In fact, his interest in leaving for the cabinet makes some sense in light of his recent behavior as governor.

Even with the state budget in crisis, Schwarzenegger has seemed curiously disengaged, volunteering in public at one point that he didn’t know the state of the legislature’s deliberations on the budget. He made a rookie mistake by flashing his money clip in response to a question about whether the state was running out of money. The governor, as a political and policy matter, seems stuck in California. He’s still offering interesting, moderate solutions to the state’s problems, but no one appears to be buying. It’s easy to see the last two years of his second and final term (he’s required to leave office after his second term is up in 2010) producing more of the same.

What’s the attraction of a cabinet post? Going to Washington and leading a national — he would quickly make it international — crusade against climate change and for energy reform must seem so much bigger and more important to Schwarzenegger than refighting the same old battles in California. In the ABC interview, he even outlined how he’d like to structure the position: as someone who would advocate for various energy reforms and would "stay the course" through different administrations. Schwarzenegger seems to be suggesting that a czar post should be created that is akin to FBI or CIA director, or president of the Federal Reserve — with terms that run far beyond the four-year run of a particular administration. Not a bad idea. And it’s nice work if you can get it.

Why would Obama appoint him? Well, with one move, a President Obama would get a high-profile spokesman on an important but controversial issue. If Arnold goes too far, Obama would have some distance and deniability. After all, this is not the pastor of his church–this is Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, whom no one would expect the president to control. And politically, Obama, by appointing Schwarzenegger, could deliver the governorship of California to the Democrats. John Garamendi, the lieutenant governor, would serve out the remainder of Schwarzenegger’s term.

If I were Garamendi, I’d start putting my transition team together now.

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