Back in the early 1990s, the right-wing taste of the year was Newt Gingrich. He led the Republican sweep into Congress in the 1994 midterm elections. His “Contract With America” loomed in every headline. Liberals wailed that Gingrichism was invincible.
The counterattack began right in Gingrich’s front yard, in Georgia. The Atlanta Central Labor Council and Jobs With Justice staged a noisy sit-in in Gingrich’s local Congressional office and seized the headlines with stinging descriptions of the Contract as a cruel assault on the poor and the working class. For months, groups of union workers dogged the Congressman at his every stop across the country. This noisy guerrilla warfare rallied the fainthearted and threw Gingrich, then Speaker of the House, off balance. By 1995 a rattled Gingrich had lost his touch, faltering badly in the famous budget face-off with Clinton.
In the 2000 Democratic primary campaign the AIDS coalition ACT UP (involved in the earlier Gingrich protests) adopted the same tactic against Al Gore, showing up wherever he made public appearances and shouting out protests at the rotten AIDS policies he’d signed on to. There weren’t always many protesters, but they were always there, and they had an effect. Gore changed his line, and so did the Clinton Administration.
Now it’s Arnold Schwarzenegger’s turn. California’s nurses have got him rattled, and it’s already costing him. A February 23 Field Poll showed his approval ratings declining ten points since last September, a significant drop. It should have been a no-brainer to realize that kicking Florence Nightingale’s butt is not a surefire way to the public’s heart. But the Governor is so used to browbeating the press that he thought he could do the same to the California Nurses’ Association (CNA), one of the most militant unions in the country. Schwarzenegger has been trying to roll back the union’s gains on nurse/patient ratios, safety standards and kindred issues.
Schwarzenegger’s version of Howard Dean’s scream came in December in Long Beach. As the nurses barracked him during a speech, he denounced them as one of the “special interests” and said, “I’m always kicking their butt.” This witty response from the breast-grabber got plenty of play, and did the nurses nothing but good. At a January Capitol protest in Sacramento the nurses carried coffins and had a New Orleans jazz group play a death march. During the Super Bowl they flew a small plane over the steroid-swollen Governor’s party at his Santa Monica home. When he was in Washington they took out a full-page ad in Roll Call flaying his record. During a Schwarzenegger speech in a Sacramento hotel, nurses held up a banner saying RNs Say Stop the Power Grab.