by Lowman S. Henry | August 15, 2003

Personality has always played a big role in politics. Although nearly 3,000 miles and a cultural gap at least that wide separates Pennsylvania and California, the cult of personality currently holds both states within its grasp.

In California, polls show actor Arnold Schwarzenneger is the leading candidate to replace Governor Gray Davis who is likely to be recalled in an early October special election. Best known for his film roles, especially as the “Terminator,” this is Schwarzenneger’s first run for public office.

That the actor has so captivated Golden State voters has sent the professional political class into apoplexy. They can’t fathom someone totally lacking in political or governmental experience running a state the size of California. Of course it was “experienced politician,” Gray Davis who messed things up so badly he is being recalled less than a year after winning re-election. But that is an inconvenient fact best left unstated.

What the professional politicians are most worried about is that this idea of citizens taking control of their own government through a recall petition, and an “outsider” like Schwarzenneger could get elected, might catch on. California after all has a history of spawning political movements that take the country by storm. Remember 25 years ago Proposition 13 ignited an anti-tax brush fire that ultimately catapulted another actor-governor, Ronald Reagan, into the White House.

The other humorous sputtering from the professional political class is their straight-faced analysis that Schwarzenneger cannot be compared to Reagan because, although Reagan was also an actor, he brought great political experience to the California governorship as a result of his past presidency in the Screen Actors’ Guild.

These same commentators degraded Reagan for years. From the time he first announced for governor, through his campaigns for the Presidency, and into his retirement they derided the “Gipper’s” intellect even though he won the cold war and ushered in an unprecedented period of prosperity in America. Now, confronted with the Arnold bandwagon, Reagan has morphed into an experienced leader to whom Schwarzenneger cannot compare.

Of course Arnold Schwarzenneger cannot measure up to Ronald Reagan. And, given the fact the Austrian-born candidate can never become President of the United States, he will not have the opportunity.

What Schwarzenneger brings to the race however is an exciting personality. Like Reagan, he has celebrity, and larger-than-life charisma. Unfortunately for Davis, his personality is, like his name, a boring shade of Gray.

We would all like to think that voters are energized and make decisions about who should be elected based on issues, qualifications, and leadership ability. But the fact of the matter is, more often than not, they don’t. Personality plays the dominant role. That’s why Schwarzenneger didn’t need a stunt man to vault ahead of more traditional candidates to become the front-runner to replace Davis.

A similar, but less glamorous situation exists here in Pennsylvania. At the same time voters in California were embracing Arnold a Quinnipiac University poll found Governor Ed Rendell with high job approval ratings despite the fact his entire agenda is bogged down in the biggest governmental mess Harrisburg has seen in a generation or two.

Rendell was elected last November largely on the basis of his cheese steak-eating, bus-riding personality over the highly competent, but less-than-exciting Attorney General Mike Fisher. Candidate Rendell made a lot of flashy promises, but never bothered us with the boring details as to how he would implement his policies.

That brings us to the current stalemate in Harrisburg. Tax reform, basic education subsidies, economic development, expanded gambling – getting movement on any one of those issues would be a dramatic achievement, but asking for all in one legislative session has simply overwhelmed the commonwealth’s change-resistant system.

But is Rendell being held accountable for the quagmire? The answer is no. Voters are still in love with his city of brotherly love persona, and lay the blame on an often faceless legislature. He may not be Arnold Schwarzenneger, but for now, Ed Rendell’s personality is carrying the day in Harrisburg.