Is billionaire Meg Whitman, the former McCain/Palin campaign co-chair who seeks to replace action movie superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger as the governor of California, like Schwarzenegger?
It's a question that her ultra-megabucks campaign clearly doesn't like. The heavily programmed career corporate marketing executive goes out of her way to distinguish herself from the multiple times Mr. Universe. She was a CEO, of a company you may have heard of, eBay. And in case you hadn't heard that and you live in California, she's spent many millions of dollars for months on ads telling you about it. After all, it is her sole claim to fame. Whereas, in her view, Schwarzeneggger was merely a jock turned entertainer. (Not that she mentions her not so excellent eBay era adventures with, say, Skype, Craigslist, and Goldman Sachs. So I won't, either.)
Whitman hates the comparison with Schwarzenegger, a comparison which is nonetheless obvious as both she and Schwarzenegger are Republicans, both are super-rich, and neither had any experience in elected office before deciding to run for governor of California. Why does she hate it? Well, Schwarzenegger, while still personally popular, has seen his once record job approval rating plummet with the global recession and the state's gridlocked budget process. And he's turned out to be too liberal for the increasingly right-leaning party whose nomination she is trying to win.
As someone who knew Schwarzenegger and talked with him extensively before he ran for governor in the 2003 California recall election -- and who began scouting Whitman, putting together several hours of film of her, when she suddenly emerged as national co-chair of the Republican presidential campaign in early 2008 -- it occurs to me that Whitman is like Schwarzenegger.
But in the wrong ways. (Keep in mind that I'm referring to the Schwarzenegger who suddenly jumped from promoting Terminator 3 into running for governor in 2003.)
** They both have had a seeming inability to talk about the issues. Whitman hired big money consultants to start tutoring her over two years ago. She became national co-chair of the McCain campaign two years ago this month. She still has no ability to discuss the issues of California in any serious way. She is still stuck on consultant-speak in the form of robotic talking points.
Schwarzenegger was also unprepared. But the circumstances were very different. He was geared to a run in 2006. He had a political consultant, but he didn't talk to him much. 2003 was the year of the next Terminator blockbuster and various business dealings. The recall was the opportunity that presented itself. Once in the race, Schwarzenegger had lengthy policy sessions at his home to bring him up to speed so he could speak knowledgeably on state issues. Which, as it happened, only took a few weeks. Whitman still isn't at Schwarzenegger's quickly spun-up level of pseudo-expertise.
** They both have shied away from knowledgeable journalists. Whitman had two disastrous press conferences last year. She had one disastrous in-depth interview with a not especially aggressive reporter for the LA Times. This year, she has had one press availablility, consisting of her answering one question submitted in advance to her staff. She gave a non-answer and then fled. And she has done one interview with a tame newspaper reporter. Even that backfired. (See below.)
** They both have had the same big politician backer. Former Governor Pete Wilson is Whitman's campaign chair, bringing along some of his close associates, as he did with Schwarzenegger. After winning a narrow election victory and seeing his popularity decline, Wilson sponsored an anti-welfare initiative. He then rode the anti-illegal immigrant Proposition 187 to re-election in 1994. A year later, while Wilson tried to run for president, it emerged that he had employed an illegal immigrant housekeeper. Not long after, he sponsored the disastrous electric power deregulation scheme that led to widespread market manipulation, blackouts, and the enrichment of Enron and other corporate wrongdoers. Whitman calls him California's greatest governor.
** They both have had the same chief strategist. Consultant/lobbyist Mike Murphy showed up late to the party for Schwarzenegger in 2003 but was a valuable part of the ensemble that directed a landslide victory. (His role in Schwarzenegger's election was inflated by the Los Angeles Times, which latched on to him as a source since it had no access to Schwarzenegger.)
After the election, Murphy convinced Schwarzenegger to make him his chief political strategist. Much chaos and embarrassment ensued over the next two years. Schwarzenegger finally fired him. Now he's Whitman's chief strategist.
** They both have made the same breezy references to "waste, fraud, and abuse" as the key to California's chronic budget crisis. With polling showing that most voters thought that as much as a third of the state budget was wasted (needless to say, a false notion), Schwarzenegger promised to audit the books and end deficit spending. But the audit didn't turn up all that much, and Schwarzenegger became much more realistic.
Whitman acts like she doesn't know any of this. Which she may not, since she didn't bother to vote in the 2003 recall election, merely one of the most famous in American history.
** They both believe in "branding." Whitman is a career marketing executive, steeped in the cult of brand management. That's been her whole career, promoting brand name products. The branding approach dictates an emphasis on marketing and advertising, not interaction with the press. It all revolves around the repetition of a few simple points, which the marketer tries to associate with the brand.
Incidentally, the job Whitman really wanted was CEO of Disney, which she went for while still head of eBay in 2005. But she lost out to Bob Iger, who now supports Democrat Jerry Brown for governor.
Schwarzenegger was also heavily into branding. The brand in his case, of course, being Arnold Schwarzenegger. Unlike Whitman, his personal brand was extremely well known, with a deep penetration into the awareness of most people. As then Governor Gray Davis put it, he was dealing with a global icon. Schwarzenegger's trick was to position his brand in the context of politics.
In contrast, there is no Meg Whitman brand. There is an eBay brand, which is why Whitman constantly mentions it, continually driving home the association with her massive advertising blitz. But eBay is not Apple or Intel, or even Disney. It doesn't have a product. It has a process.
** Both worked to clear the field of Republican opponents, but did not quite succeed. Schwarzenegger deftly cleared the field of all Republicans but the California conservative icon Tom McClintock, then a state senator and now a congressman, who now backs Whitman's super-rich Republican rival, Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner.
Less deftly, Whitman's camp helped convince ex-Congressman Tom Campbell of the obvious fact that he had a better chance in a third try for the Senate and failed spectacularly in trying to muscle Poizner out of the race.
The angered Poizner is already running negative ads against Whitman. McClintock, in contrast, barely criticized Schwarzenegger in the 2003 campaign, because Schwarzenegger, ignoring the counsel of some of his Pete Wilson-derived advisors, was smart enough not to piss him off.
** Both have seemed to have autocratic attitudes. Schwarznegger had a naturally intimidating manner, honed for decades in bodybuilding and action movies. As the biggest action star in the world, he was the ultimate shot-caller in his Hollywood world. Things don't really work that way in politics, as he knows now.
At eBay, Whitman was widely noted for her monarchical attitude and addiction to corporate perks. Some people I talk to who knew her there still act as though she is just about to walk into their offices and start yelling at them.
Whitman acts as though she can take the same attitude into her dealings with the state Legislature. In her very rare newspaper interview last month, she said that she would let legislators know what she "will and will not put up with."
** Both have had a penchant for slipping questions. He did it by filibustering. She does it by giving the same non-answer a few times and coldly looking away or leaving.
Schwarzenegger's approach usually worked, because he actually was talking and could seem charming while doing it, even when he really didn't know what he was talking about.
Whitman's approach works, too, at least in interviews with local TV stations, which is what her campaign favors. Most local TV reporters lack the knowledge and sophistication to converse with a high-level figure. And even those who are capable of that are loathe to appear unpleasant on camera by repeatedly asking the same question of a recalcitrant interview subject.
Whitman's approach doesn't work at all in a press conference, which is why the few she has had have been either smoking disasters or runaways by the candidate.
Those are the ways in which the Whitman of today and the Schwarzenegger of 2003 are alike. It's very striking.
Of course, there are many dissimilarities.
Schwarzenegger had a lot more experience in politics, having been around his very politically savvy wife Maria Shriver and his Kennedy in-laws for decades. His mother-in-law Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who encouraged Schwarzenegger to run for governor and campaigned with him, founded the Special Olympics. His father-in-law, Sargent Shriver, founded the Peace Corps.
Schwarzenegger had a lot more engagement with politics, having campaigned for candidates around the country, served as a presidential and gubernatorial appointee, and having run and won a statewide initiative for after school programs.
In contrast, Whitman, who has barely bothered to vote and can't even get her story straight about how long she's lived in California, seems like a political cipher.
Schwarzenegger was also more liberal and issue-oriented, had his own very real brand, and engaged more with the press.
Schwarzenegger also raised a lot more money from other people.
Utilizing her big corporate contacts, Whitman raised about $10 million last year. Schwarzenegger raised more than that in his two-month long campaign in the 2003 recall election.
Where Schwarzenegger spent $10 million from his own personal fortune in winning the California governorship in 2003, Whitman has already spent several times that and she hasn't even gotten through the Republican primary yet.
In fact, Whitman has already spent more of her own money in this one race than Schwarzenegger has spent in all his campaigns combined. That includes his two landslide elections as governor and a variety of statewide ballot initiatives.
I think Meg Whitman is going to learn a lot in the months to come.