Dan Walters has been covering California state politics for the past 30 years and now finds himself writing about the surreality of having Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor.
He's penned more than 6,000 columns on the state's politics, and his one for The Sacramento Bee appears in more than 50 California newspapers. He recently spoke to PRWeek about Schwarzenegger's tumbling approval rating, the state of politics in California, and the media that cover the political circus.
PRWeek: Schwarzenegger's approval ratings have tumbled from 69% favorable a year ago to 38% today. What happened?
Dan Walters: He came in with high popularity and name recognition. People were sick of [former Gov.] Gray Davis. But in- stead of using that as an opportunity to establish his credibility as governor, he opted to play on his celebrity. In Hollywood, popularity is everything. It doesn't matter how good an actor you are. Popularity is the currency of the realm. And that is where it differs from politics. Popularity is a means to an end; it's not an end unto itself.
PRWeek: But what has gone wrong in the past year?
Walters: He pronounced that all was wonderful, but he had not solved anything. It finally dawned on him a year ago that it was not fixed, or he was forced to acknowledge that it wasn't fixed. Calling Democrats "girlie men" seemed like a throwaway line, but he was really referring to Democrats being beholden to special interests. It was a declaration of war because, for any fundamental change, particularly on the budget, he'd have to take on the unions. From that point, it has been a steadily escalating war.
PRWeek: Schwarzenegger has been given a lot of credit for his communications style and ability to reach out to voters. Why hasn't that helped him more?
Walters: He's been acting as if the whole thing was a media promotion tour. That's something you do for one month, not all year long. He didn't make the transition from celebrity to governor.
PRWeek: Have people begun to tire of the celebrity approach?
Walters: [Schwarzenegger's team is] having to manufacture the crowds. His approach is getting repetitious. It's about catchwords, not substance. People are saying, "We don't want you to be a phenomenon. We want you to govern. We want to say something other than, 'Schwarzenegger is our governor,' to our relatives in Oshkosh, [WI]." He has just never made the case about what is wrong and that he has the answers. He's still acting as if he has 69% popularity. He thinks he has to keep doing the same thing. But it's not doing anything.
PRWeek: Has the way the media cover Sacramento changed at all?
Walters: I don't think so. I'd fault the state's media as being slow and nonexistent to acknowledge the larger problems of governance in California. There are not enough stories about that. The Washington Post ran a great story on population density, and how Southern California is becoming the densest population in the US, and the impact of that on the state and government. But that's in the Post. You won't read that in the LA Times.
Name: Dan Walters
Outlet: The Sacramento Bee
Title: Political columnist
Preferred contact method: firstname.lastname@example.org