Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown have begun their fight in earnest. The combatants are predictable, and the strategies well-worn - perhaps even more so than in previous races, given who the main leaders are.
On the one side, Jerry Brown stands as the consummate political insider, with a political career stretching back 40 years, a well-honed philosophy, and a history of family involvement in the state capitol. On the other hand, Meg Whitman stands as the image of a political outsider, with seemingly no previous interest in politics, a philosophy built on practicality rather than ideological cohesion, and a history of entrepreneurship in what may be the most entrepreneur-oriented environment in the present economy – the internet. In some ways, the fight is a classic case of the old against the new.
But the new doesn’t always win, at least not immediately, and if Meg Whitman wants to have a chance of defeating Jerry Brown, her campaign will need to hit notes that not only reassure voters of her newness, but that California is ready for that newness, and that it will not threaten the state. If her most recent ad is any guide, Whitman is planning to sell this message indirectly, by pointing out that the old is no longer functional.
The ad targets what Whitman calls Jerry Brown’s “legacy of failure.” It is a textbook case of historical awareness being used to tar a politician, and its comments on Jerry Brown’s record run the gamut from not-so-subtle association of Brown with 60’s era student protesters, to snide replays of takedowns by Bill Clinton, to strident denunciations of Brown’s recent economic record.
On the other hand, Whitman faces a clear political challenge insofar as her straight-talking, blunt style, while it will carry echoes of political leaders whom her party faithful admire (Margaret Thatcher comes to mind), could also dance dangerously close to insensitivity at times. This is a charge that Whitman can ill afford, given that the main weapon currently being employed against her campaign is the class warfare charge of being rich, out of touch, entitled and spoiled. In short, if Whitman is trying to cast her opponent as an incompetent government kleptocrat, then Brown’s allies are trying to cast her as Paris Hilton.
Exhibit A is an aggressive public relations campaign currently being waged by the California Nurses Association, to paint Whitman as “Queen Meg,” the sort of wealthy heiress whose goals would include transforming California into an oligarchy. Unlike the historical nature of Whitman’s ad, this attack is deeply personal, according to the San Francisco Chronicle:
“Union leaders said its new campaign makes direct references to a June 14 New York Times report of a 2007 incident in which Whitman, then the chief executive of the online auction firm, became angry and shoved a subordinate employee. The paper reported that Young Mi Kim, who now is a corporate communications director with eBay, received a $200,000 settlement in the case.”
The group claims that this incident “shows how disconnected the GOP gubernatorial nominee is from working people.”
Now, much as Whitman’s strategy of focusing on the negative with respect to Jerry Brown doesn’t necessarily answer the question of why she has a positive vision for the future, so too this strategy doesn’t answer the question of why someone who is connected to working people is necessarily more qualified, or why an abrasive management style is always unnecessary. While dodging the main accusation of physical violence, Whitman has asserted herself as a tough talker following this ad, a strategy which will have dubious results:
“The union's moves drew a sharp response from Whitman campaign spokeswoman Sarah Pompei, who said ‘the California Nurses Association is a group of one-party union activists that unequivocally support Jerry Brown. It is tightly controlled by partisan union bosses, and they are knowingly misrepresenting Meg's positions on the issues and the opinions of California's nurses.’”
This sort of bravura, while encouraging to the party faithful, still dodges the main question of who Whitman is, and why her vision for the future is so uniquely attractive, relative to Jerry Brown’s “legacy of failure.” The pettiness of politics has dragged down candidates more qualified and more attractive than Whitman, and she would be advised to avoid it.
Either way, the mudslinging has just begun. One only hopes that somewhere in the mud, there might be a few sparkling gems of sense.