On an unseasonably hot May day in Central Park, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg the pint-size billionaire whose last name needs no elaboration for anyone who knows anything about finance or the media was talking about saving the planet. With the mayors of more than 30 of the world's largest cities at his side, Bloomberg was opening a climate summit, highlighting his ambitious plan to slash the Big Apple's carbon emissions. Together, the mayors pledged to enlist their 250 million constituents in the fight against global warming. "Unfortunately, partisan politics has immobilized Washington," Bloomberg said. "But the public wants this problem solved. Cities can't wait any longer for national governments to act."
At a lab in Toronto a week later, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger the fridge-size multimillionaire whose last name needs no elaboration, period was talking about eliminating disease. The Governator was announcing a new stem-cell partnership with Ontario, highlighting the $3 billion his state is investing in research the Bush Administration has opposed. In that unmistakable Ahhll-be-bahhk accent, the five-time Mr. Universe spoke of his father-in-law Sargent Shriver, the Peace Corps founder who suffers from Alzheimer's and no longer recognizes his family. "I look forward to curing all these terrible illnesses," Schwarzenegger said. "We're showing how powerful a state can be. Cahh-lifornia doesn't need to wait for the Federal government."
The Hollywood brute and the Wall Street mogul may look like the oddest couple since Twins, but there's a reason Schwarzenegger calls Bloomberg his soul mate. They're both self-confident, self-made men who rose to stardom from middle-class obscurity Bloomberg in Medford, Mass., Schwarzenegger in Thal, Austria through Tiger Woods-level determination and Donald Trump-level salesmanship. They're both socially liberal Republicans who have flourished in Democratic political cultures; Schwarzenegger is even a member of the Kennedy clan, through his marriage to Maria Shriver. They both bounced back from poison-ivy approval ratings to easy re-elections in influential places Bloomberg in the world's media and financial center, Schwarzenegger in what he calls "the nation-state of California," the world's entertainment trendsetter and eighth-largest economy. They're less scripted than most politicians and seem to have more fun. Despite their image as a cutthroat businessman and a shoot-'em-up macho man, they try to avoid political confrontation. And they've both been talked up as centrist Presidential candidates Bloomberg in 2008, even though he says he's not running, and Schwarzenegger someday in the future, even though the Constitution currently prohibits immigrants from running.
They're also doing big things. Specifically, they're doing big things that Washington has failed to do. In a time of federal policy paralysis, when partisanship-on-crack has made compromise almost impossible, when President George W. Bush's political adviser is a household name but his domestic policy adviser was unknown even in Washington until he was arrested for shoplifting, cities and states are filling the void. Bloomberg and Schwarzenegger happen to be the best examples of this phenomenon as well as the best known. Bloomberg is 65; the Last Action Hero is turning 60; they've got better things to do than bicker and posture. "These are two exceptional and forceful guys who don't need the job at all; they had pretty damn good lives before they got into politics," says their mutual friend Warren Buffett. "They're in office to get things done. And they're doing that a lot better than anyone in D.C."
Look at global warming. Washington rejected the Kyoto Protocol, but more than 500 U.S. mayors have pledged to meet its emissions-reduction standards, none more aggressively than Bloomberg. His PlaNYC calls for a 30% cut in greenhouse gases by 2030. It will quadruple the city's bike lanes, convert the city's taxis to hybrids and impose a controversial congestion fee for driving into Manhattan. And Schwarzenegger signed the U.S.'s first cap on greenhouse gases, including unprecedented fuel-efficiency standards for California cars. (He's already tricked out two of his five Hummers, one to run on biofuel and another on hydrogen.) The feds have done nothing on fuel efficiency in two decades, but 11 states will follow California's lead if Bush grants a waiver. After signing a climate deal with Ontario on the same day as his stem-cell deal he said he had a message for Detroit: "Get off your butt!" He had a similar message for Washington. "Eventually, the Federal government is going to get on board," he said. "If not, we're going to sue."
But they're tackling not just the climate. Bloomberg is leading a national crackdown on illegal guns, along with America's biggest affordable-housing program. He also enacted America's most draconian smoking ban and the first big-city trans-fat ban. And he's so concerned about Washington's neglect of the working poor that he's raised $50 million in private money, including some of his own millions, to fund a pilot workfare program. Meanwhile, after the Bush Administration rebuffed California's appeals for help repairing the precarious levees that protect Sacramento, Schwarzenegger pushed through $42 billion worth of bonds to start rebuilding the state's infrastructure. He's also pushing a universal health-insurance plan and hopes to negotiate a deal with Democrats this summer. "All the great ideas are coming from state and local governments," Schwarzenegger told Time. "We're not going to wait for Big Daddy to take care of us."
Schwarzenegger and Bloomberg are too unusual in too many ways to call them a new breed of government leader; they don't even accept government salaries. After all the late-night jokes about Conan the Republican and the Running Man, it's still hard to believe the hulking dude with the funny accent who got pregnant in Junior is leading 36.5 million people. It's still surreal to watch kids squealing for his autograph after a speech extolling public-private partnerships, or reporters asking if he intends to pardon his fellow celebrity Paris Hilton. In some ways, Bloomberg is an even less likely politician; he doesn't seem to crave public adulation, and he's not much for dutiful clichés. After he announced new restrictions on campaign donations the tightest in the nation Bloomberg was asked if he was being hypocritical, since he had spent more than $150 million of his own money to win two elections. "I would suggest that before anyone runs for office, they should go out and become a billionaire," he replied. "It makes it a lot easier."
So they're not exactly playing politics as usual. But their model of crossing party lines to act where Washington won't is increasingly common. As D.C. politics has become more of a zero-sum partisan game, Mayors and Governors in both parties have taken on predatory lending, obesity, energy, health care and even immigration. "It's innovation by necessity," says Stephen Goldsmith, a former Republican mayor of Indianapolis who oversees Harvard's Innovations in American Government awards. This year hardly any federal programs applied. "Very unusual," Goldsmith says.