Billionaire Meg Whitman, the seeming political cipher who would be governor of California, is purchasing endless amounts of unanswered advertising. It's propelled her into a slight lead over Democrat Jerry Brown in the new Field Poll, something which Brown (who's held, lost, and held again leads in many campaigns) told me weeks ago that he expected.
Yet she has serious problems. At this past weekend's state Republican convention, she tried to deal with two of them: Her avoidance of the press and her mysterious motivation as a newfound politician.
As a character, Meg Whitman lacks evident psychological credibility. Why is someone with no engagement in public affairs before her sudden leadership role in the 2008 Republican presidential campaigns -- someone who couldn't even be bothered to vote, and can't say how long she's lived in California -- suddenly running for governor of the state?
Conservative Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Whitman's business mentor, provides the answer. It was his idea that Whitman run for governor, and he convinced her to do it. Whitman served as a national finance co-chair for Romney, who hired her at Bain & Co., before serving as national co-chair of the McCain-Palin campaign.
Romney spent this past Friday night, his birthday, as it happens, appearing with Whitman at the banquet of the state Republican convention in Santa Clara. In her address, Whitman laid out a sweeping agenda of massive tax cuts and regulatory rollbacks right out of the Romney playbook. Naturally, in her time with the press afterward, no one asked her about it -- instead focusing on process questions about why she is now talking to the press.
Before she spoke, Romney made a lengthy introduction of Whitman in which he laid out the rationale for her candidacy. After both of them spoke, the duo engaged in a carefully staged question and answer session with a fawning right-wing radio host.
The evening was essentially a dual event: Romney for president (many think he is the Republican frontrunner to take on President Barack Obama in 2012), and Whitman for governor.
It really was the Mitt and Meg show, with the leveraged buyout artist-turned-conservative presidential candidate as the intellectual author of the Whitman candidacy and Whitman the very admiring protege of mentor Mitt and the Bain way of the world. Something with clear national implications.
As godfather of the Whitman campaign, Romney argued that she is the only Republican candidate who can beat Jerry Brown in the mostly blue state, California. Why? Because she has the resources to purchase endless amounts of advertising, and she is a woman. In Romney's view, her having been a CEO is something of a double-edge sword.
Romney acknowledged the obvious. It's a difficult time to be a CEO running for office. So he positioned her as "a different kind of CEO," one who eschews big corporate perks. Whitman, he declared, was CEO of "the people's company," eBay, where she "created one million jobs."
In reality, Whitman was very big on corporate perks, and the idea that she created a million jobs is a simply fantastical notion.
In Romney's view, it's very important to elect Whitman governor of California, for the Golden State "is in worse shape than Greece" as far as being a threat to a prosperous global economy. What California needs, he said, is strong medicine: Big tax cuts, big regulatory rollbacks, and the defeat of its labor unions.
In her very tepidly received speech, Whitman -- whose campaign theme song is, appropriately enough, "Taking Care of Business" -- echoed Romney's themes and expanded upon them.
Long pushed for specifics beyond her repetitive mantra of more jobs, better education, and cutting the budget, Whitman delivered.
The former Goldman Sachs board member outlined a program of big tax cuts for the rich and corporations. She claimed that eliminating the capital gains tax and instituting another round of tax cuts for corporations -- the state just granted big corporate tax cuts last year as part of its barely cobbled together budget deal -- will create millions of new jobs and actually decrease the state budget deficit. What those cuts will actually do is cost the state billions in revenue, adding to an already yawning budget gap.
Whitman also issued a clarion call for an end to all new regulations in California. Regulations, she claimed, cost California "four million jobs."
She also reiterated her call for the rollback of AB 32, California's (and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's) landmark climate change program. She has not yet endorsed a proposed initiative to end the program, funded by two Texas oil companies, perhaps mindful of private polling showing it to be unpopular.
After proposing to add to the state's budget deficit with new tax cuts for wealthy investors and corporations, Whitman claimed that she has a plan to balance the budget.
First, she will eliminate the jobs of 40,000 state employees. Which ones? That's very unclear. In any event, that only saves a few billion.
So where does the bulk of the saving come from? Whitman claimed that she can cut $15 billion through the use of technology and through various unspecified efficiencies involving that old standby, "waste, fraud, and abuse." Which, even if true, would still be short of the mark.
She also launched attacks on public pensions, welfare, illegal immigration, and, of course, all unions, private as well as public -- the evident source of all evil in California.
She dismissed her Republican primary opponent, super-rich state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, just endorsed last week by California conservative icon Tom McClintock, as a closet "liberal."
And she tried out a new attack slogan on Jerry Brown: "Way Too LIberal For Way Too Long."
Perhaps it was too much corporate conservatism and not enough grassroots conservatism, but the response even from this banquet crowd to Whitman's speech was notably tepid.
Perhaps it's a lack of electricity about Whitman as a candidate. She's no Ronald Reagan as a speaker. And she's hardly a Scott Brown in regular person appeal.
She hasn't improved as a public speaker since her first state Republican convention speech of February 2009. That, at least, was an improvement over her speeches from 2008.
Perhaps it was the teleprompters. Those can be difficult to use. And reading aloud with feeling is a knack that many simply don't have.
Intriguingly, the campaign provided her with recessed teleprompters which were only visible to those in the front of the banquet hall. But there was no need for any subterfuge, as I doubt that anyone watching imagined that she was doing anything other than deliver a prepared text, a rather well-done text at that.
When he spoke the next night, Whitman's rival, Poizner, did better. He was more relaxed, using neither a teleprompter nor a prepared text. He got a better response from the crowd than Whitman, but didn't really break through.
In a development that Whitman, perhaps envisioning herself as one of the "Golden Parachute Twins" this fall, undoubtedly did not like, the star of the convention turned out to be Carly Fiorina, the ex-Hewlett Packard CEO running for U.S. Senate. The current leader in the GOP primary, ex-Congressman Tom Campbell -- who Whitman's camp helped persuade to make the logical move and drop out of the governor's race -- had a much smaller presence and was overshadowed. Worse still for Campbell, he is struggling with his past involvement with a convicted jihadist terrorist. He's had to change his story repeatedly to try to explain the controversy away.
Fiorina's speech, delivered without a teleprompter (though she used some notes on a stool, to which she circled back from time to time), delivered in a theater-in-the-round set-up, was a big hit. As was the new film from "Demon Sheep" creator ad man Fred Davis. Featuring a giant Hindenberg head of Senator Barbara Boxer, floating across the country from Washington to California, making various pronouncements, it's a clever enough skewering of Boxer and promotion of Fiorina's pseudo-populist, anti-big government themes.
Whitman's having been flushed out into fleshing out her program will prove to have been a mixed blessing.
An unalloyed blessing, at least for the moment, is Whitman's newfound engagement with California's diminished press corps.
Whitman stepped back from the abyss of totally post-journalism politics, but launched into a new phase of peekaboo politics.
At the end of last week, I wrote, in no little amazement, of Whitman's near meltdown into possibly terminal arrogance in stiffing the press. After inviting some of the San Francisco Bay Area press to an essentially meaningless event, Whitman proceeded to refuse to talk to them or allow them to watch her tour of a railroad facility in Oakland. Then she and and her campaign were busted in a faux town hall, which was really the setting of a campaign infomercial with pre-selected questioners, pre-fab questions, and multiple takes to get the right "spontaneous" action.
Then the campaign announced it would not hold a press conference at the Republican convention, understandable as she had bombed out in the face of persistent substantive questioning at both party conventions last year.
Whitman press secretary Sarah Pompei, in charge at the Oakland debacle, explained why there would be no press conference. "We didn't think we needed anything formal," Pompei told me. "Meg's going to be around. There will be plenty of opportunities to talk with her."
The next day, Whitman arrived at the convention hotel hours before her events. Only a few of the 60 or so journalists registered for the convention were there to see her little arrival rally at the hotel entrance. There they found themselves gathered by a Whitman senior advisor, Rob Stutzman, a former communications director for the state party and Governor Arnold Schwarzengger, into an unscheduled session with Whitman. Not in the press room, but in a private room. Whitman held forth for about an hour. Based on the reports, those reporters who were there were happy to be invited.
One daily newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, which whined for weeks about being stiffed by Whitman, handed out fawning "awards" after the convention, thanking her campaign for the free drinks and citing the billionaire for best "press conference" and for being "best-dressed" in her black Armani suit. Say, I was wearing a black Armani suit, too. Where's my "best-dressed" award?
After Whitman spoke at the banquet, Stutzman, again clearly big-footing the everyday press operation, beckoned reporters to another unscheduled press availability on stage.
Notably, the questions focused more on process than policy. No one asked Whitman about the huge tax cut program and the big regulatory rollback she had just outlined, nor her sweeping and dubious claims about these programs. I didn't ask, either. If I had, the questions would have been asked. I won't be at many of her events. It's the job of the local press to press her on the issues.
Aside from her Friday night banquet appearance, contrary to Pompei's suggestion, Whitman was not much in evidence at the convention, which she left altogether after a breakfast Saturday morning with Romney and their supporters.
Also not much in evidence, in this case, not present at all? Whitman's controversial chief strategist, Mike Murphy, former chief strategist for Schwarzenegger. Stutzman and Murphy were partners in the D.C. Navigators consulting and lobbying firm after their dismissal by Schwarzenegger. (Murphy was a principal with the firm while Schwarzenegger's political consultant, and embarrassed the governor with his lobbying activities.) They both previously worked for Mitt Romney.
Whitman avoided debating Republican rival Poizner at the convention, but did debate him before a private fundraising group on Monday night in Orange County. Frankly, the event was something of a farce.
Far more people would have seen the debate, which was not televised, had it taken place at the convention. There were also far more press in attendance in Santa Clara. I watched the debate on a live webcast, the only way it could be seen outside the hall in Costa Mesa. Actually, I should say that I tried watching it.
For a big money group, the New Majority -- joined by the California Chamber of Commerce and California Association of Realtors as the co-sponsors -- did a remarkably inept job of operating a webcast. It cut out entirely about 20 minutes in, then played intermittently after that.
It would be nice to say that the shockingly bad transmission kept viewership down. However, there were only about 1700 people viewing when the transmission was first lost. From what I could tell, viewership topped out around 2000 at the debate's height.
As for the debate itself, there were no knockout blows landed.
Whitman nearly knocked herself out, however. First when she didn't know how to use her microphone. Again when she nearly knocked the water over. But she seemed to do fine.
In contrast, Poizner was much more relaxed.
He zinged her as a liberal masquerading as a conservative. She zinged him as a liberal masquerading as a conservative. I think you see where this is going.
Both sides claimed victory. The press on hand proclaimed it a draw.
For his part, the governor that Whitman and Poizner are trying to succeed, Arnold Schwarzenegger, pushed back hard against their big push for a rollback of environmental regulations. Schwarzenegger did not attend his party's convention. He did tour the Green California Expo on Tuesday morning. In contrast to the notable lack of electricity around Whitman, it was a tumultuous, slow walk with a large entourage, festooned with cameras, interrupted by countless well-wishers.
Schwarzenegger stopped at many displays of what looks like a vibrant emerging green technology sector in California. He also pushed back hard against the forces that want to roll back California's landmark climate change program, AB 32.
"It's an amazing experience to come through here, and see the technology moving so quickly. All the innovation, and we see because of our policies that we have put in place, people are saying this is where we want to do business, no matter where they come from around the world. Because they know that we stay with the policy moving forward.
"I think that the Californian people are very much for protecting our environment. And for supporting AB 32. I think Californian people are outraged that Texas oil companies are coming to California to try to change the law and affect policies in California.
"I mean, it's outrageous. And so this is why I think all of us, environmentalists and ordinary citizens, we all will be out there defending AB 32, this historic, landmark policy that rolls back greenhouse gases and protects the environment."
Schwarzenegger noted California's long history as a leader, especially on energy.
"This has been what we do here. Energy conservation. The state has been number one, 40 percent more energy efficient than the rest of the United States, for a long time. (Note: The strategy was established by Jerry Brown.) And the great thing about AB32 is job creation, look around here. Every one of the businesses that I visited want to expand. The only place that is creating jobs now is the green sector. So why would I want to go and undo that? Why would we want to go back to the Stone Age?"