But Schwarzenegger, 73, warns that there are plenty of similarities between California’s history-making populist movements nearly two decades apart, and that elected officials ignored them at their peril.
“It’s pretty much the same atmosphere today as it was then,” Schwarzenegger, the 38th governor of California, said in an interview this week. “There was dissatisfaction, to the highest level. And it’s the same with the momentum. Something that sets it off to a higher level, kind of the straw that breaks the camel’s back … like an explosion.”
In his first-ever interview on this year’s California recall drive, which is expected to be certified soon, the Republican former governor tells POLITICO that the same voter frustration and yearning for effective leadership and post-partisan cooperation are still clearly at play in the nation’s most populous state — and offers Newsom some advice on what may lie ahead.
Here are some excerpts from that conversation, edited for length and clarity:
Do the 2003 California recall that brought you to power and the current recall against Gavin Newsom have anything in common?
It’s pretty much the same atmosphere today as it was then. There was dissatisfaction, to the highest level [in political leadership].
People are working very hard. People are making unbelievable sacrifices every day. It’s very tough to raise kids and to have a family, and to go through this challenge, working to make ends meet. And you feel like, “Wait a minute, but Sacramento doesn’t really do everything for us that they promised they’ll do. We are working hard — but they’re not. They’re failing us every day.” That’s what I see as the similarities from 2003. It’s the same vibe.
And it’s the same with the momentum. Something that sets it off to a higher level, kind of the straw that breaks the camel’s back … like an explosion.
In Newsom’s case, it was the French Laundry thing. With us, it was the power outages in 2003.
Newsom’s team says it’s a “Republican recall” and an effort to overthrow a Democratic governor — is that how you see it?
The Republican party is, like I have said, dying at the box office. This is the crazy thing here, when they say it’s a “power grab” of the Republicans. Let me tell you, the [California] Republicans couldn’t even get anyone elected. It’s ludicrous — the Republican Party doesn’t exist. These are the signatures of the ordinary folks that have signed on.
But isn’t the recall a struggle between the two major political parties?
The political parties will make it right away about them. The Republicans are going to claim the Democrats are terrible, and then the Democrats are going to come in and they say, ”It’s a power grab,” which of course I heard a million times in 2003.
It had nothing to do then — and it has nothing to do today — with either party.
People are dissatisfied. [The recall is] the people’s way of kind of letting off some steam, and then they decide: Do we want to follow through, or not follow through?
You say recalls aren’t about politics. But didn’t Democrats work hard to attack you — as they’re doing now to attack recall backers?
The Democrats brought out Bill Clinton. They brought out my good friend, John Kerry. They said [to voters], “This would be the worst thing you can do,” that “Let’s think of it as a heart surgeon, would you want to have a heart surgery from someone that has never performed heart surgery?”
I just said that, [in Sacramento], the surgeons have been doing surgery for years, and they’ve killed every patient.
Are you concerned about the Democrats’ argument that there is a far right element to this recall — people who have talked about extreme things like microchipping undocumented immigrants, etc.?
Well, no. But I mean it’s exactly the same thing they said [about] me, it was the same dialogue. And so, there is no difference. You have to step back. What is it someone has to say when he wants to keep his job? He is going to paint the other side in a horrible way. That’s what happens in political campaigns, but you can’t take it seriously, because that’s what you do. It’s the same in a UFC fight: Who is the one who can take the best punch, and give the best punch?
In the 2003 recall, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante made the move to get on the ballot to stop you. Was it a real threat to have an elected official from the other party?
That’s all nonsense. No one knew who Bustamante was then, and nobody knows who he is today. It was literally just me — being able to connect with the people and to have big rallies. They got bigger and bigger and bigger. I told [Californians]: Here’s my vision. I know I can do that, and I will work my butt off for you. And I will not look at it in a political way as a Republican. I will just work with both parties, I will serve you, I will be a public servant, not a politician. People bought in, they connected. And I connected with them.
What was the biggest thing that made the difference in the 2003 recall’s success?
The people were looking for an outsider. That doesn’t mean always there’s a degree of success — with Trump, outsider is not always the best bet.
I made it very clear to the people of California that I don’t see the Democrats as the enemy, and I don’t see Republicans as the enemy. I said we must work together to bring the people together — and then we can accomplish certain things. So, this is what I think was a refreshing kind of a thing to hear.
Yes, stardom helps — as much as when people say, “If you have money you can buy the election.” But there’s many elections that we can point to in America that have happened where billionaires didn’t win, like [former eBay CEO and 2010 gubernatorial candidate] Meg Whitman. I think that you have to also show that you are personally interested in serving the people. The reality is, in my case it worked to my advantage, and I never ever looked at the recall as a political issue.
But this time, there’s no “Schwarzenegger-like” figure who can rally voters, right?
Just remember that the people will vote first of all on, “Do they want to have the governor recalled?” — so that has nothing to do with any one individual. That’s nonsense dialogue.
What would happen if George Clooney would run for the governorship? What if Brad Pitt would run? If Oprah Winfrey would run? We don’t know, so there will be an interesting answer to do a poll like that.
California is one of 19 states that allows recalls of governors. Is it too easy here to make this happen?
[In the last 100 years], we had only one recall. It’s very, very difficult. You can start the fire, you can go crazy and you can go and collect the signatures, but can you actually get to the finish line? I think it is very difficult to do.
Does Gavin Newsom take some blame for this recall because of his performance in the pandemic?
I’m very sensitive about one thing — and this is when we go and pretend it’s only happening in California. I was in the mid 60s with my approval rating when I was governor in 2007. Then in 2008, in the recession, my poll numbers plummeted.
So today is the same thing. We have to be careful. The whole nation, and the entire world is fighting over, “Should we take the kids to school or not? What is risky?” The virus is a world phenomenon. And people are just angry — angry that the kids are not in school, angry that we’re supposed to follow science, and there’s a whole crisis going on here and nationwide.
So does Newsom deserved to be recalled?
Newsom is doing something very smart, and that is that he is engaged now. The people have already succeeded with that, even if there’s no recall, because he now has gotten out of Sacramento. He is traveling around the state, is being seen everywhere, is involved and engaged with the vaccine, is involved with education. I see him on the news all the time now. And you know, he’s handling this situation really well. That is already a victory.
Then what’s your advice to him?
I call [the recall] a valve. People have to have a way to let our their anger. And this recall is a way to let out their anger. So now, it’s up to him to say, “Now wait a minute, okay, maybe I was slow at the wheel in the beginning, but I promise you, this is the kind of governor I will be.” And then he is going to go and now jump into more action.
There is progress that people have already experienced. Now it’s, can you really address the homeless? Can you really create equality in education? [On those issues, he must] sit down and they have to go and work on that, without listening to the special interests, and really represent the people in the best possible way.
It’s not easy, because there’s a lot of powers out there, it will pull in one direction or the other — but it has to be done.
So the only advice I have for him is that he’s doing a good job now. That he has improved his connection with the people, and that he should continue on being real — being himself, and to really always just think about the people — and not about the unions, not about the party, not about any of that — just the people. And to solve the problems. Solve the problems.
Will you endorse in this recall?
No, I don’t get involved in that at all. I try to be, in this case, the elder statesman, one that understands the phenomenon of a recall, that understands why people are dissatisfied, that understands what needs to be done and is not being done.
All I can tell you is that I’ve had many people come to me for advice over the period of these last few months. I don’t talk about who, but I can tell you, a lot of people. And I can tell you also — that I will never say what we talked about.