Meg Whitman strides the California political landscape like a colossus. Her estimated $100 million dollar investment in trying to win the state's highest office has given her star-wattage name recognition. Whitman's TV and radio spots, in English and Spanish, are ubiquitous.
A slew of polls has Whitman either equal to or ahead of long-time political icon Jerry Brown as the most likely next Governor of California come this November.
But questions about Whitman persist. Beyond her Goldman Sachs connection (strangely under played by the Brown campaign), allegations that she was physically abusive to an E-Bay employee, and serious doubts about her real position on immigration (a keystone issue for the king or queen-making Latino electorate) -- there is the CEO question.
Whitman has told the electorate that she is the person to fix California. And boy, does California need fixing. The litany of problems sounds like a Biblical list of divine plagues and punishments -- the yawning budget deficit, the uber-powerful public employee unions and the equally influential business special interest that run through Sacramento like ants at a picnic, the massively under-invested state infrastructure, and, of course, an education system that has deteriorated to the point where only 50% of the students actually graduate from the state's largest public school district (Los Angeles).
To these and many other problems, Whitman has prescribed a simple solution: run the state government like a good business. Cut costs, invest in opportunities, fix the state like you would restructure an ailing corporation.
And who better than a successful, big company CEO to do it?
But as Jerry Brown is fond of pointing out, a state government is not at all like a corporation.
The CEO of a company is a kind of beneficent dictator. She wakes up in the morning with an idea (build a product, acquire a company, restructure the business) and faster than you can say "Let's get it done!" well trained executives are implementing actions.
Vision becomes mission through the exercise of executive power.
But California, and specifically the institutional power of the Governor of the state, are far from that corporate construct.
The division of powers, not just between the executive, legislative, and judicial, but also among the competing elected state-wide officers (the state comptroller, the treasurer, the insurance commissioner, et al), plus the muti-layered municipal and county centers of power, combine to make the governing of California an exercise in constant compromise if not outright frustration. (Just ask Arnold.)
And then there is the out of control "Proposition" process. Originally envisioned as the means of consulting voters on matters of grave importance, the system has degenerated into a free-for-all.
Super-rich individuals, corporations, unions and even weak-kneed politicians afraid of making decisions, have made direct democracy (much feared by the Founding Fathers as a threat to the stability of the republican system of government) an exercise in chaos.
In June's election, for example, the state's largest car insurance company funded a proposition to alter the rules under which the industry can hike-up prices. A large electrical utility, hidden behind a benevolent-sounding committee, tried to block competition from municipal providers in another proposition.
And perhaps most famously, in 2008 Proposition 8, currently the subject of a Federal Court trial, took away gay people's constitutionally protected right to marry. It was passed with the help of a massive marketing campaign funded by a coalition of conservatives, out-of-state anti-gay groups, and the Mormon and Catholic churches allied with evangelical groups.
Other propositions have stripped away the Governor and legislature's responsibility and accountability for a host of critical issues - from education spending and taxation levels, health care for disabled people, to even infrastructure projects, such as high-speed rail.
These propositions also veer into the ridiculous, as when voters where asked to approve the size of chicken cages in farms (I am not making this up).
So can a common sense, business approach to governing the state actually work? Is the projection of vision into the marketplace (a talent clearly demonstrated by Whitman's success at E-Bay) analogous to actually governing a massive state, with colossal problems and a diffused power structure that has stymied governors for decades?
Of course, Jerry Brown, a former governor and perpetual fixture in state politics says no. In a recent interview with Time magazine, Brown blasted the notion that running a corporation would prepare one to run California:
He is quick to contrast himself with Whitman, pointing out every instance where her theories crumble against the realities of actually governing. "I've done this," he explains. "I've been in government and overseen thousands of businesses. I've run charter schools. Those are businesses. She ran her ... her website. She can say whatever she wants. But if you have never worked in government...It's a different world. That's like someone who's never dove in a river and says, I know what swimming in a river is like."
Of course, this is the crux of the election. Will Whitman's government-as-business approach trump Jerry Brown's deep experience in state governing? Will voters, sick and tired of the deeply corrupt California political scene, flee from Brown's experience because it may mean business as usual? Will they buy Whitman's technocratic proposals?
Whitman undoubtedly has the strength and intellectual power to run big things. But her CEO approach may ultimately be her Achilles' Heel if Brown is successful in convincing the electorate that governing experience is a benefit and not a liability.
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