California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s slate of fairly modest governmental reforms went down to stinging defeat on November 8, 2005, leading Californians to ponder a future in which their flawed celebrity governor has little power and the public-sector unions—the targets of most of the governor’s failed initiatives—are more brazen than ever.

Following the election, I spoke at a panel titled, “Where Do We Go From Here?”  My answer: Nevada or Arizona.  Kidding aside, California might soon face another exodus of productive, middle-class residents and small-business owners, who have long been fleeing this costly, high-tax, regulation-happy state for destinations throughout the intermountain West.

“Where to go?” has long been the big question at barbecues and parties but was less asked after the recall of an incompetent governor (Gray Davis) who was controlled by the unions.  There was a sense of optimism, given that Schwarzenegger at least targeted the right villains.  But immediately after his special election defeat, the governor started making amends with the unions.  Now, conservatives have reason to fear that a governor who never had a firm commitment to their principles is going to tack to the left to bolster his image.

Proposition 74 would have forced public-school teachers to wait five years, rather than the current two, before getting tenure.  Prop. 75 would have forced public-sector unions to ask permission before taking money from members for politics.  Prop. 76 would have slowed deficit spending by limiting the growth in government to the growth in revenues from the past three years, while giving the governor additional powers.  Prop. 77 would have handed redistricting to a retired panel of judges.  The current system is rigged: In the last election cycle, not a single one of 153 legislative and congressional seats changed party hands.

Why did all of these propositions lose?

The governor waited months before responding to a dishonest ad blitz that depicted him as a foe of firefighters, teachers, nurses, and police officers.  By the time he mounted a reply to this $100-million union campaign, it was too little, too late.

The public also reacted against the initiative process itself, voting “no” on all eight statewide ballot initiatives.  Every election, Californians face a mind-numbing array of complicated initiatives.  Most conservatives and libertarians, myself included, are happy that the Progressive-era reforms of recall, initiative, and referendum exist, given that, without them, there would be no way to derail the state’s taxing-and-spending machine.  Nevertheless, the public sometimes gets sick of having to micromanage state government, and they show this by voting down everything.

Voters are fickle.  They vote for big-spending Democrats for virtually every statewide office, then get mad when deficits surge.  But they get mad, too, when anyone talks about slowing the growth of government programs.  So they recall the old governor, replace him with an untested reformer, then get mad at the reformer when he tries to institute some of the reforms he promised them.

Schwarzenegger had a confusing strategy.  He is so ideologically muddled—his cabinet has been described as the Star Wars bar—that it is sometimes hard to know what he is trying to accomplish.  He never communicated his goals clearly to the public.

Even if the four Schwarzenegger-backed initiatives had passed, they would not have ushered in dramatic changes.  The big issue was symbolism.  The governor took on the special class of people who run California—the unions—and lost.

The state’s budget is bloated because of the astounding salaries and benefits enjoyed by public-sector workers, and unfunded pension liabilities are now pushing the city of San Diego to the brink of bankruptcy and causing problems statewide.  No matter how bad the situation gets, it cannot be fixed because of the stranglehold of the unions.  We have reached critical mass, where those who plunder the system for personal gain are too powerful to be stopped.

Maybe a move to Reno, Las Vegas, or Phoenix isn’t that funny of an idea after all.