Stateline Story

A Tale of Two Comebacks

  • January 30, 2008
  • By Louis Jacobson

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) and Alabama Gov. Bob Riley (R) aren't often spoken of in the same breath. But both cheated political death, and their stories hold lessons for other politicians

After Alabamians in 2003 voted down a $1.2 billion tax hike proposed by Riley in his first year in office, he seemed like a dead man walking. Riley's own state GOP had fought the tax hike. National anti-tax advocates made the tax plan - and Riley himself - public enemy No. 1.

By mid-2005, his approval ratings were stuck in the mid-30s, and he faced what appeared to be bitter primary challenge by former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, who defied the federal government over a Ten Commandments statue in his courthouse, and a potential rematch in the general election with Don Siegelman, the Democrat whom Riley barely ousted in 2002.

Yet in 2006, Riley rode to re-election, besting Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley by 16 points, and he remains popular today.

Schwarzenegger faced his Waterloo just two years after winning a gubernatorial recall election, as four conservative ballot measures he promoted in a 2005 special election were resoundingly rejected by voters.

"Arnold got unpopular for a very specific reason of his own making," said Democratic strategist Garry South. "For whatever reason, he decided to cast his lot with the right wing."

Yet just a year later, Schwarzenegger cruised to re-election over Democrat Phil Angelides. Today, he boasts 60 percent approval ratings.

How did these two governors turn things around? Credit several factors that Riley and Schwarzenegger could control - and several that they could not.

Timing, timing, timing.

Riley's doomed tax plan came with three years left in his term. Schwarzenegger cut it a little closer, but both governors had time to recover.

Admit you're wrong.

Often it's not the mistake that hurts you but the refusal to apologize for it.

In Alabama, "Riley didn't fight it or get petulant," said University of Alabama political scientist David Lanoue. "He accepted defeat gracefully and moved on."

Schwarzenegger did, too. "He acknowledged his error, publicly and often, then brought in a revamped staff with less of an ideological edge," said A.G. Block, the former editor of the California Journal. The mea culpa proved to be a "tonic" for voters, making possible his rapid comeback, Block said.

Keep your state's dominant voter bloc happy.

After Riley's ballot measure lost, he promised to do "the things conservatives are supposed to do," said Gary Palmer, president of the conservative Alabama Policy Institute. That meant forswearing tax hikes and putting the spending squeeze on state agencies. Riley stuck with the program so well that Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform - one of his most vocal critics in 2003 - says he is now thrilled with him.

While Riley submitted to his red state's leanings, Schwarzenegger began catering to California's moderates and liberals.

He hired top Democratic aides and joined Democratic legislators in enacting greenhouse emissions curbs and promoting infrastructure bonds. He and Assembly Democrats are pursuing a universal health-care proposal, although they hit a roadblock in the state Senate this week. Still, Schwarzenegger is more often at odds with Republicans in the Legislature than with Democrats, and he is almost as popular among Democratic voters as he is with Californians as a whole.

"He lost popularity when he moved to the right, and he gained it back when he returned to the middle," said Harvey Englander, a Los Angeles-based consultant who has worked with Democrats and moderate Republicans. "To me there's no magic and no secret to it."

Avoid getting sidetracked on divisive social issues.

Riley, despite being a social conservative, has largely de-emphasized social issues. And Schwarzenegger has marginalized his party's socially conservative wing. "Old-fashioned western Republicanism is all about government keeping its hands off your wallet and out of your personal life," said Sacramento-based GOP strategist Patrick Dorinson.

Those four factors all fall within the governor's control, but others require dumb luck.

Hope for good economic times.

The economies of Alabama and California were both healthy when the two governors sought a second term.

Especially in Alabama, revenue gains from new factories and oil leases helped provide Riley with a significantly improved budget picture. "Going into his 2006 campaign, Riley was able to cut taxes and raise spending on schools - which is what you want to do if you're going to get re-elected," Lanoue said.

Draw a weak opponent.

In 2006, moderate state Comptroller Steve Westly lost the Democratic primary to liberal state Treasurer Angelides - a far less effective and appealing candidate. Schwarzenegger leveraged his considerable charisma and newly revived moderation to trounce Angelides.

Riley, for his part, was fortunate twice. Moore's once-formidable-looking primary challenge fizzled amid voter wariness of his past actions. Then, in the Democratic primary, Siegelman, facing corruption charges, lost to Baxley, who proved to be an underwhelming candidate.

(Some Democrats allege a GOP conspiracy to cripple Siegelman by bringing charges, but Riley and other Republicans have denied this.)

Make the most of a crisis.

California had a series of wildfires and other natural disasters that yielded plenty of opportunities for Schwarzenegger to show off his larger-than-life, take-charge image.

Riley capitalized in an even bigger way - after Hurricane Katrina. By all accounts, Riley was an effective presence during the recovery, while Baxley, having no statutory role, was almost invisible. Riley's effort contrasted favorably to the widely panned response by then-Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D) next door.

"It gave him the opportunity to look like a strong leader," acknowledged state Democratic Party spokesman Jesse McDaniel.

Of course, common sense and political reality suggest another lesson: Don't assume comebacks are permanent.

Schwarzenegger's health-care proposal appears doomed, and a state budget crisis continues to loom. The governor has called a 45-day session to grapple with a $14 billion shortfall. Schwarzenegger insists he won't raise taxes, but many analysts expect him to be forced to do so, along with ordering spending cuts.

In "a draconian budget year," Block said, "painful decisions loom. … It is a year that will tax Schwarzenegger's cache of goodwill as he tries to sell unpopular notions to an electorate in denial."

Louis Jacobson is the editor of CongressNow, an online publication launched in 2007 that covers legislation and policy in Congress and is affiliated with Roll Call newspaper in Washington, D.C. Jacobson originated the "Out There" column in 2004 as a feature for Roll Call, where he served as deputy editor. Earlier, Jacobson spent 11 years with National Journal covering lobbying, politics and policy, and served as a contributing writer for two of its affiliates, CongressDaily and Government Executive. He also was a contributing writer to The Almanac of American Politics and has done political handicapping of state legislatures for both The Rothenberg Political Report and The Cook Political Report.