06/11/2010 03:15 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Whitman and Fiorina's Big Primary Wins Carry Seeds of Self-Destruction

The big wins by billionaire Meg Whitman and ex-Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina in the California Republican primaries for governor and U.S. senator carry the seeds of destruction, not the least of it being self-destruction. Both candidates have exhibited a great deal of hubris. Which is hardly warranted after a campaign that resulted in the lowest primary election turnout in California history.

Amidst all the errant talk about them being "outsiders" -- sorry, folks, super-rich big-time corporate CEOs are obviously not outsiders -- running against "insider" Democrats Jerry Brown and Barbara Boxer, two little words have been forgotten. Scott Brown.

The shock winner of Massachusetts' Senate special election in January is the model for a Republican who can win in a mostly blue state. An accessible, seemingly regular person. Whitman and Fiorina couldn't be less like Scott Brown if they tried, though Fiorina at least is accessible.

Jerry Brown's election night speech in Los Angeles, following an introduction by L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and endorsement by Lee Baca, the Republican sheriff of Los Angeles County.

Not that she didn't show her own brand of hubris right after smoking longtime frontrunner and press favorite Tom Campbell by a startling 35 points in a three-person primary race. She notoriously talked smack about Senator Barbara Boxer's hair and dissed Whitman for choosing to go on far right icon Sean Hannity's Fox gabfest as one of her first general election appearances.

But the latter move was only part of Whitman's hubris. After her campaign had no initial response, she also rejected Brown's call for 10 freewheeling town hall debates, on the spurious and illogical grounds that she has a plan and he does not.

She is also going to put a TV ad on the air in which she tries to soft soap her hard-edged corporate conservative agenda by expressing her concern for the plight of the unemployed. The "human cost," she says, "I see every day."

And her old colleague Sarah Palin -- Whitman was national co-chair of the McCain/Palin campaign against Barack Obama (who carried California with 61% of the vote) -- weighed in with a big attack on Brown during one of her paid TV appearances on Fox. Had Whitman gotten her way in 2008, Palin would have been one tortured POW heartbeat away from the presidency. How's that for judgment?

Let's look a little closer at these things before running down the primary results.

What's Whitman's plan for California? Eliminate the capital gains tax for rich investors such as herself, slashing billions of dollars from the already reeling revenue base of the state budget. Cut 40,000 state worker jobs (California already has one of the lowest number of state workers per capita in the U.S.) in areas she still can't identify. Cut $15 billion in purported "waste, fraud, and abuse" that somehow has escaped the already massive budget cuts and that no one serious thinks exists.

But of course these massive tax breaks for the super-rich and large corporations are just the ticket to revive the economy, along with her plan to halt all new regulations and roll back the state's landmark climate change and renewable energy program.

We've heard all this before, of course, and it has nothing to do with being an "outsider." It's called trickle-down economics, and it doesn't revive economies, it busts budgets. And California already has a busted budget.

Put plainly, that's not a plan. That's a very bad joke, an insult to the intelligence of anyone Whitman expects to take it seriously.

But it's what the lobbyists and consultants who surround Whitman and spin up the scripts she never departs from tell her to say.

Without them, she has nothing serious to say, as you might expect of someone who's seldom bothered even to vote before being convinced by her business mentor, Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney, to run for governor.

Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, ebullient after crushing Republican frontrunner Tom Campbell, burbled into an open mike about Barbara Boxer's hair.

With them, she has this dangerous sort of pablum.

Brown spoke the morning after winning his essentially unopposed Democratic primary at a press conference at the Los Angeles Athletic Club, challenging Whitman to a series of 10 town hall debates.

These would take place before crowds of real Californians, in a freewheeling format to enable a full discussion of the pressing issues before California.

On election night, Brown decried what he called the "billionaires demolition derby" of the Republican primary.

No one can say that Jerry Brown doesn't have an interesting background.

"She talks about waste and abuse," Brown said of Whitman's evanescent budget proposals. "She paid herself $120 million, and then eBay had to lay off 10% of its workforce. Now, is that waste and abuse? Is that what you want?"

Whitman's campaign demurred at first on Brown's challenge to 10 town hall debates. Just as it did at first in April, when Brown challenged Whitman and Republican rival Steve Poizner to three pre-primary debates, in order to spice up the endless and enervating barrage of negative TV ads which resulted in California's lowest ever primary election turnout.

But just as it happened in April, after Whitman's top lobbyist and consultant handlers had a chance to think it over, she announced that she won't have those 10 town hall debates with Brown. Why not? Because she has put out a plan to revive California, and he has not. (Her plan consists of a pamphlet with lots of graphics, and policies that really do not add up.)

Of course, the purpose of debates -- real debates, not those staid reporter panel events with questions ping-ponging all over and no real rebuttals of talking points -- is to get at the reality of what a candidate is saying.

And the problem for Whitman is that her plan makes no sense. It simply does not add up, in fact, by several orders of magnitude. And that is to the extent that there is any plan at all, which is to say, not much.

After all, let's think about this for a brief moment. Whitman is saying that she won't debate Brown because she has a plan and he doesn't. Huh? If I had a plan and my opponent didn't, I'd love to debate him. Who wouldn't?

Yet Whitman proposes now to wait until October, for one debate, with no town hall.

"Bring it on," Whitman crowed yesterday before supporters. She claimed she can't wait to debate Brown. In, er, October.

"Let's go to the people of California and have an unscripted exchange about the issues we face," Brown said on Wednesday.

"I have a history of this. Whitman only has a history of spending money wildly to get whatever she wants," Brown declared.

Billionaire Meg Whitman, in a new TV ad about to go on the air, presents her corporate conservative agenda as one of concern for those in need.

Cue the big development of Thursday, when Whitman's campaign announced that she is about to put yet another TV ad on the air -- this an unintentionally amusing attempt to identify with the plight of the unemployed.

She's trying to apply a cleansing to her image after the nasty dynamics of her $90 million-plus record-spending win in the lowest-turnout primary election in California history.

And she is applying some very soft soap to her very hard-edged corporate conservative agenda of massive tax cuts for wealthy investors and regulatory rollbacks.

Here's the script:

Meg Whitman: If we could only do one thing, putting people back to work would be the most important thing.

The human cost of two million Californians out of work is devastating.

And, I think, often politicians forget about that because they don't see it every day. I see it every day.

I think raising taxes on Californians today is absolutely the wrong thing to do. We have to streamline regulations. We have to cut taxes for businesses. And then we have to stand up and compete.

California needs to lead the nation again. And I think we can do it.

I don't know how Whitman, speaking of the human cost of unemployment, "sees it every day." That's an added fillip of bathos that, from her ultra-privileged perch, simply doesn't fly.

The ad is supposed to begin airing later on Friday.

Brown had $21 million in the bank over three weeks ago, and has spent little since while he's continued to raise money. In a normal election, Brown would be unbeatable in California with that war chest and a bloody Republican primary. He's still going to be very difficult to beat. But Whitman is unabashed about appearing to try to buy the governorship. She is already the biggest spending state candidate in American history.

Whitman struggles to evade explaining why she hasn't voted in this new TV ad by California Working Families.

So Brown needs some help to avoid watching months of unanswered advertising from Whitman.

The California Working Families independent expenditure committee has announced that it is putting a TV ad on the air in the next few days, too. It shows Whitman, looking very out of touch, trying in vain to explain her failure to vote. Well, actually, it shows her trying to repeatedly dodge the question.

Amusingly, Governor Schwarzenegger and all his would-be successors voted publicly on Tuesday. It's what political candidates do. Well, all of them did, but one.

Whitman, who has barely voted in the past, cast her ballot by absentee, thus avoiding the obvious embarrassing questions when she showed up at her polling place. Oddly, this was barely reported.

Whitman spent $90 million in this primary in her bid to defeat Steve Poizner, who was once dismissed as a speed bump. That $90 million is $40 million more than Whitman planned to spend in the primary.

How much more can she spend? She is a billionaire, but billionaires don't keep their money sitting around in checking accounts. She said she would spend $150 million for the primary and general elections. If that's the case, she has only $60 million to go. Which would not be enough against Brown alone, much less his allies.

But everyone is figuring Whitman can spend more than that, though how much more is unclear. (Though some say she can sell eBay stock, or simply get a large, nearly free loan against assets from money managers Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley.) So the Democratic Party and organized labor have their own programs, the latter to communicate with its large numbers of members and provide campaign infrastructure.

And independent expenditure committees (IEs) have emerged.

Brown, naturally, prefers to control campaign spending on his behalf, which he can through his own campaign and through the Democratic Party. But not through the IEs, as it is legally prohibited.

As a result, Brown insisted that money in the primary go to him or, in amounts larger than allowable under California's contribution limits -- which seriously disadvantage someone running against a free-spending billionaire -- to the Democratic Party. At times, Brown, who is not a fan of the political consulting business, has dissed IE efforts.

But, while the Democratic Party can spend throughout, it can only coordinate with Brown in 45-day periods prior to a primary election and a general election. And there are some legal limits on the sort of advertising it can undertake, making it more oriented to an issue than to politics in general.

The IEs are under no such strictures. They simply can't coordinate with Brown.

The largest of the IEs is the California Working Families organization, of several important labor unions, some wealthy contributors such as former Bill Clinton business partner Ron Burkle, and notable Democratic consultants such as former Obama media director Larry Grisolano and former Gray Davis press secretary Roger Salazar.

This group has raised $12.5 million in cash and commitments thus far, and will be doing TV ads.

California Working Families formally merged its effort with that of the Democratic Governors Association in California. Which is to say that the DGA will work with and through the California Working Families structure.

Also working in alliance with California Working Families is an already existing IE called Working Californians, which played a major role in state Controller John Chiang's 2006 election against a better-funded Republican. This group will be doing radio ads.

It's not clear to me what the most heavily publicized IE, Level the Playing Field -- launched with a big burst of publicity in the consultant-friendly San Francisco Chronicle -- will be doing. It was this launch which prompted a month of Republican claims that Whitman was about to be hit with a $40 million attack advertising blitz, based on expansive pronouncements uncritically repeated in the press and the presence of a former Brown campaign director.

Whitman, who touts her policy "book," has been talking for more than a year about cutting 40,000 state worker jobs as key to her budget plan. But she still can't say where she'd cut, sticking only to her talking points in this interview.

As we move forward, what can we take away from the primary?

TOP OF THE TICKET. In the end, Republican voters, in what was the lowest turnout California primary election in history, coalesced around two big-spending female CEOs in the nomination races for governor and U.S. Senate.

Fiorina blew away longtime putative frontrunner Tom Campbell, 57% to 22%. The ex-congressman barely ran ahead of far right Orange County Assemblyman Chuck DeVore and his 19%. Had DeVore not been in the race, the conservative Fiorina's 35-point margin would have been even more massive.

I called the turn in this race a while back, here on the Huffington Post and elsewhere.

In the Republican gubernatorial primary, Whitman, who lost every bit of a 50-point lead to state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner just a few weeks ago, won most of it back to wallop the guy who put the GPS chip in your mobile phone (bet you didn't know that), 64% to 27%.

I also called Whitman's big fall, and her rebound, here a while back.

What happened with Poizner? Well, he had no real definition, and a very recent background totally out of phase with his positioning in the race. He was an Arnold Republican, a real moderate type, who in 2007 saw the party's big swing to the far right and adjusted accordingly.

So when Whitman hit him back as a phony conservative, he didn't have a lot of backup in his background. And Poizner never rolled out his own biography, impressive in that he's a real technological innovator whose work has made a difference in people's lives. He allowed himself to get into reactive mode just as he was about to launch his TV advertising, when Whitman attacked him on the air.

On the Democratic side, favorite Jerry Brown won an easy nomination for governor, as I forecast a few years ago. He got 84% of the vote, spending no money. (A slice of the primary vote is always available to fringe candidates, with two getting 4% here.)

And Boxer also swept to an easy victory, with 81% of the vote. The distant runner-up, with 14%, was a fellow named Brian Quintana -- proclaimed on the banner of his website to be "The Producer To The Stars" -- someone best known for his curious accusation of sexual harassment against a famous (and famously heterosexual) movie producer. That said, I wasn't quite sure who he was, and had to look him up after I noticed his vote total. Finishing with 5% of the vote was Mickey Kaus, the prominent blogger and former New Republic columnist critical of labor unions and illegal immigrants.

On the Republican side, Fiorina had perhaps the most impressive victory of all, winning by 35 points in a race with three serious candidates. Her margin was nearly twice what it was just over a week before the primary. What happened? Well, there was a bandwagon effect. And, as Fiorina communications strategist Julie Soderlund pointed out, Fiorina was "increasing her voter contacts" as Campbell was cutting his back.

Campbell was persuaded by the Whitman camp to drop out of the governor's race for two reasons. One, so that Whitman could have a clear shot at what moderate voters were to be had in the primary. And two, to see if an emerging narrative of "the Golden Parachute Twins" at the top of the Republican ticket might be avoided.

Campbell was able to raise more money than he had before, with the assistance of Whitman backers, but not nearly enough once in the Senate race to compete down the stretch with Fiorina.

How will Fiorina do against Boxer? Well, she'll be competitive, though she doesn't have nearly the ready cash that Whitman has. And she is a very capable speaker and debater. But it won't be easy for anti-abortion candidate to win, even one who is a woman.

STATEWIDE INITIATIVES. Proposition 14, the open primary initiative backed by Governor Arnold Schwarzengger and others, passed in a 54% to 46% vote. That provides Schwarzenegger with a matched set for his electoral reform agenda, following passage of redistricting reform in November 2008.

But two megabucks initiatives, whose opponents could not afford any advertising, went down to defeat. Proposition 16, which would have required two-thirds public votes to authorize local public power operations for renewable energy, went down by 5 points, despite the Pacific Gas & Electric utility spending nearly $50 million to pass it. And Proposition 17, a curious initiative sponsored by Mercury Insurance which would have rewarded people for continuous auto insurance coverage but further penalized them for interruptions in coverage, went down by 52% to 48%.

So, just because a campaign spends a ton of money doesn't mean it's going to win, even if the opposition has no money at all. Note to Meg Whitman...

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