By now you have probably heard about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s admission that he fathered a child out of wedlock with a member of his household staff. This happened just a few years before he ran for Governor of California. Maria Shriver described the news as heartbreaking.

What Schwarzenegger does with his penis is his own business and the business of his family. But I think Kevin Drum is right to point out that over a dozen women came forward with allegations of groping and sexual misconduct during the recall election in 2003. This was dismissed as a cheap political stunt, but as Drum says it was actually a function of the reduced six-week timeline of the recall. The Los Angeles Times got the story out when they could, rather than nurturing it for years over a longer campaign. Schwarzenegger weathered the storm through basically lying, saying that this was all old news drummed up by opponents. But now we learn that just a few years earlier he was fathering children with his staff.

His megawatt-smile denials were pure pap, and if knowledge of his affair had been public it’s almost a dead certainty that the recall would have failed and Gray Davis would have remained governor. The car tax would have stayed in place, no bonds would have been issued to make up for it, and California’s deficit problems would have been less than half as bad as they turned out to be under Schwarzenegger.

That’s what comes of running a politically motivated snap election with weird rules in six weeks: you don’t really know what you’re getting. In the end, the Times was right about Schwarzenegger, and his folksy boys-will-be-boys denials were lies. We’ve paid a pretty high price for that.

Just to give you the backstory here, Schwarzenegger ran on slashing the “car tax,” actually known as the vehicle license fee, by what amounts to $6 billion a year, papering over the subsequent hit to the budget with ever-increasing bond sales that have built a wall of debt. Just this one mistake alone would wipe out the entire deficit for the current fiscal year and would have allowed for a lot of budget savings in prior years. The recession wouldn’t have hit as hard because public services wouldn’t have been cut, and the state would have provided some extra demand through more spending. The debt service just leaks out of state to Wall Street and provides no value whatsoever.

This was a catastrophically stupid decision. Gray Davis didn’t even raise the vehicle license fee: it came from a trigger passed under Republican Pete Wilson that automatically raised the fee during certain economic conditions. That was the right thing to do, as it would have saved a ton of budget pain. California has multiple problems, but just allowing the reset of the vehicle license fee to go forward would have helped a great deal over the past decade. But Arnold was impulsive and inexperienced, and he stumbled into creating a bigger disaster. He was the worst governor in California history, and if character counts at all, you can see how his character rubbed off on his stewardship of the state. Californians, blinded by media hype and bluster, put an idiot into the Governor’s mansion, with predictable results.

And I’ll close with this: Schwarzenegger really was the last Kennedy. Because with the notable exception of the LA Times in 2003, the media pretty much treated him like a global icon and a Hollywood star rather than a public official, and that meant a hands-off policy on his personal life. They got an assist from Schwarzenegger’s allies, who paid off tabloids to scotch news stories about affairs. But the media sycophancy about Schwarzenegger during his two terms in Sacramento was nauseating, and it led to the irresponsibility that almost sank the state.

David Dayen

David Dayen