Schwarzenegger: "Look Beyond" One's Principles

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Sacramento Press Club

Photo: Sacramento Press Club

As pundits and politicos gear up for a year of examining the legacy of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, they may want to consider what sounds like a bit of a manifesto from the man himself.

It was delivered this afternoon at an appearance before the Sacramento Press Club, and it may help explain not just some of Schwarzenegger's most impressive victories... but also why so many parts of the political spectrum have grown disenchanted with what have seemed like multiple course corrections.

The comments came in a question I asked about the offshore oil drilling proposal known as Tranquillon Ridge, a project whose upfront $100 million royalty to the state became part of the governor's budget solution in 2009. The proposal -- which also includes promises to mothball several existing platforms off the Central Coast -- has split some environmental groups. And although it was rejected by the Legislature last summer, it's resurfaced in the Guv's latest budget plan.

Platform Irene, off the coast of northern Santa Barbara County (Photo: John Myers, KQED)But it's not a proposal that Schwarzenegger has specifically talked about, hence my interest in getting him on the record. Furthermore, the T-Ridge drilling plan has raised questions with some enviros about Schwarzenegger's commitment to being a 'green' guv.

That's best exemplified by the above YouTube video, where environmentalists pasted together some of the governor's many statements in the past that denounced any new oil drilling off the California coast.

Schwarzenegger today admitted that this support for the plan is "budget driven," and portrayed the proposal as one with which everyone is happy.

"It will be satisfying so many ends," he said. "First of all, we get less dependent on foreign oil. Second, we will get extra revenues. The environmentalists are happy, business is happy, so everyone is happy, so why not go ahead with it?"

That understates the environmental opposition, which included the original backers during Schwarzenegger's 2009 effort to sidestep the normal process for approving the project.

But elsewhere in the answer was something larger... a hint at what might be the fundamental truth about his time as governor. "I think that it is when you are in an emergency, a fiscal emergency," said Schwarzenegger, "I think that you look beyond of [sic] just your principles."

The governor went on to say the budget isn't really a reflection of his "priorities," but rather his single priority: "to live within our means."

Nonetheless, the notion that one's principles should, or can, be sometimes set aside seems to explain many of Governor Schwarzenegger's zigs and zags over the years. And I asked him the logical follow-up: if some of his principles are flexible, then why not all of them? The answer, while a bit meandering, eventually came back to the state's finances.

"The key thing is the principle of living within our means and not continue spending money that we don't have," he said. "That's a promise I made in 2003 when I was elected, and that's a promise I want to keep."

Setting aside for a moment his record on that issue, it bears mentioning just a few of the issues on which the governor's path hasn't been so straight and narrow through the years: education, the environment, tax increases, local government funding... and perhaps more. It's little wonder that Schwarzenegger has, in so many ways, become what's been called a "party of one" in California politics.

But if balanced state budgets are at the core of his political legacy (and he again today denied thinking about that legacy), how should one view the current state fiscal mess? Or, what should be made of this past weekend's Field Poll that found 30% of those surveyed think the state post-Arnold will be in the same shape it was pre-Arnold... while 59% say the state will be in worse shape once Schwarzenegger leaves office.

Audio of the entire comment from the governor, from my original question to the follow-up, can be heard below:

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.