08/30/2010 04:33 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Harsh Realm: The Meg Whitman Program for Future California

Billionaire Meg Whitman keeps plugging what she says is a program for California's future as a key reason to make her governor of the nation's largest state. She must be counting on people not paying attention to what her program actually is.

For quite awhile, Whitman, still struggling to develop any momentum in her race for California governor against Jerry Brown despite having already broken all spending records for a non-presidential candidate in American history, has touted her program as the reason to vote for her as Arnold Schwarzenegger's successor. Namely, that she has one and Brown doesn't. Or didn't. Lately, Brown has released a lot of program points, none of which are a surprise since they reflect what he's been doing and saying throughout his decades in public life.

Billionaire Meg Whitman lays out her program of big business conservatism, which she, in her notably unsuccessful first ad of the general election, tried to recast as concern for the unemployed.

But that didn't stop Whitman from trying to have what she calls her "book" -- it's actually a 40-page pamphlet, with big type and many pictures and graphics -- placed in California's public libraries. Virtually all of them turned her down, since it's campaign advertising and decidedly not a book. Nor did it stop her from using it as one her many excuses to avoid debates with Brown (I have a policy book and he doesn't have one yet), or from mailing it around the state, or from having it lovingly photographed for one of her incessant TV ads.

For quite awhile, the much diminished state press corps bought into the whole Whitman-has-a-program thing. No one really took a look at what it is. Which is interesting, because the program makes no sense.

In fact, if Whitman were somehow to become governor and then somehow get her program enacted, California would become a harsh realm indeed. ("Harsh Realm" being inspired, of course, by Whitman's married name of Mrs. Harsh and her constant depiction by the California Nurses Association as Queen Meg, as well as the short-lived series from X-Files creator Chris Carter.)

Hers is essentially a program of big business conservatism, very much in line with what I filmed her saying in early 2008 as national co-chair of John McCain's presidential campaign. Which in turn was a continuation of the Bush/Cheney economic policies America came to know and love so very well.

Before going through her very consistent program, let's acknowledge a few differences, mainly in the area of flip-flopping.

In her failed first general election ad, right after the June 8th primary, Whitman spun her program of big tax cuts for the wealthy as concern for the unemployed whom she, unlike politicians, somehow "sees every day."

On illegal immigration, Whitman, like Bush and McCain, did favor comprehensive immigration reform. Which in right-wing social politics circles is known as "amnesty." It was one way of trying to appeal to Latino voters, and perhaps distract them from her terrible record of hiring Latino executives at eBay.

Under intense pressure from rival Steve Poizner in the GOP primary, she switched her position. And after trying to flop back after the primary, she was forced to stick to the position of being for mass deportations when the far right whose votes she must have forced her hand.

She's also flip flopped on climate change, renewable energy, and offshore oil drilling. She was a big booster of offshore drilling as national co-chair of the "Drill, baby, drill" McCain/Palin campaign, and continued to make favorable statements about till this past spring, when she came out against it. Since then, she's even insisted she was "always" against offshore drilling. I'll get to climate change and renewable energy in a moment.

Conservative Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Whitman's business mentor, came up with the 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. (where she learned the games of management consulting and finance capitalism), before serving as national co-chair of the McCain-Palin campaign.

Whitman has a sweeping agenda of massive tax cuts and regulatory rollbacks right out of the playbook of former leveraged buyout artist Romney, the Republican frontrunner to take on President Barack Obama in 2012. You'll notice I'm saying that the Romney program is the Bush/Cheney program, which is not an auspicious fact for Mr. Romney in 2012.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney appeared on his birthday with California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman in this discussion of the wonders of corporate America and the evils of labor unions.

Romney likes to say that Whitman eschewed corporate perks, and created "one million jobs" as head of eBay. But as we know now, the reality of her tenue at eBay is quite different. In reality, Whitman was very big on corporate perks, and the idea that she created a million jobs is a simply fantastical notion. Actually, eBay provided a platform for sellers of their own products, a platform for which Whitman raised fees six times during her corporate reign while the market value of eBay declined by half in her last three years there.

What California needs, says Romney, is strong medicine: Big tax cuts, big regulatory rollbacks, and the defeat of its labor unions. Whitman, whose campaign theme song may still be "Taking Care of Business," as it was in the spring, echoes Romney's themes and expands upon them.

Whitman has had a repetitive and simplistic mantra of more jobs, better education, and cutting the budget, for nearly two years. But her policy pamphlet makes clear that she does have actual specifics.

The former Goldman Sachs board member is pushing a program of big tax cuts for the rich and corporations. She claims 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.

In a good revenue year, her elimination of the capital gains tax -- a move that principally benefits people like her and her friends -- costs the state $10 billion or more. In a bad year, half that. Unless you believe in the Laffer Curve. Which hasn't proved out in practice. And even in the most rose-colored view of the right torpedoes the budget in the near term.

In this gauzy ad, entitled "Executive Leadership," endorsers from Meg Whitman's past and present payrolls describe her as a great corporate executive.

She also issues a clarion call for an end to all new regulations in California. Regulations, she claims, cost California "four million jobs." A claim she can't back up.

Central to that is her call for the rollback of AB 32, California's (and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's) landmark climate change program. She has not endorsed a proposed initiative to end the program, funded by two Texas oil companies, perhaps mindful of private polling showing it to be unpopular.

But her position is clear enough, despite quite a bit of flip-flopping on it. She wants to end the program.

Whether she wants to suspend it for a year, as she said last year and as she said recently, or end it altogether, as she said in the spring while fighting to win the Republican nomination, her position amounts to ending the program.

Major investment decisions in green technology are being taken now, as investor Tom Steyer and former state Controller Steve Westly, Whitman's former eBay colleague, have been pointing out.

These decisions, as Schwarzenegger points out, are making California the leader once again in green tech. As it was during Jerry Brown's first governorship.

But "suspending" the program throws all of that into chaos.

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. California already has one of the smallest state workforces in the nation in proportion to the population it serves.

In this TV attack ad from last month which distorts long-ago comments from Jerry Brown, Whitman touts her plan for California's future.

In fact, Whitman still can't say which jobs she would eliminate, more than a year-and-a-half after making it part of her simplistic mantra. In any event, that saves a relative pittance.

So where does the bulk of the purported 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.

But there's no reason to believe it's true at all, and Whitman can't cite any specifics.

When he first ran, in the dramatic California recall of 2003, Schwarzenegger promised much the same thing. Specifically, he said he would conduct an "audit" of the state budget.

Whitman's version of the audit is a "state grand jury."

Schwarzenegger imported former Florida budget director Donna Arduin -- recommended by his advisor Mike Murphy, who also then worked for Governor Jeb Bush, and is now Whitman's chief strategist -- to conduct this audit. Did she find massive waste, fraud, and abuse? Obviously not.

Maybe instead of recycling political consultant nostrums already shown to be of no use, Whitman should come up with some specifics on how to cut the budget.

Which is not to say that government can't be run more efficiently. But the reality is that the budget cuts that Schwarzenegger has imposed -- which he's largely had to impose due to the near meltdown of the global economy and the collapse of California's revenue, which is overly dependent on high-income Californians from whom Whitman amusingly proposes to get even less revenue -- gives the lie to the fiction that such large amounts of waste, fraud, and abuse are there to be cut.

The reality is that Whitman doesn't even try to say where she would cut, even though she has a massive campaign apparatus that includes practically every major "cut government" advocate in the state.

The reality is that Meg Whitman is pushing a program that principally benefits people like herself.

Her program doesn't help people like you or me, it helps people like her. Folks who are very wealthy and looking to get more wealthy, able to float above commonplace concerns like quality public schools, an efficient law enforcement system, and a refurbished infrastructure. Not to mention environmental and labor safeguards.

This ad from California Working Families points up how very different Meg Whitman's world is from that of all but a few people.

So how's the campaign itself going?

Not exactly swimmingly for Whitman.

As I've written since the June primary, Whitman is failing in her goal of building a big 12 to 15-point lead over Jerry Brown over the summer, a lead from which he can't recover in the fall. In fact, she has no lead at all in any credible poll.

It's only a matter of days till the start of Labor Day weekend, and Brown has successfully managed the passage from the primary without spending a dime. What I've called his "Zen rope-a-dope campaign" has worked with, to borrow a line from the Beatles, "a little help from his friends." Which nonetheless has been dwarfed by Whitman's record-shattering spending and incessant advertising.

I'll write more about all this and the campaign itself as we get closer to Labor Day weekend.