In the middle of a press scrum at the Republican state convention on March 12, Meg Whitman laughed out loud at a radio news reporter who asked her about her national political ambitions:
Ms. Whitman, would you commit to serving a full four-year term if you’re elected governor? There’s been talk of you as a national political figure.
Let’s just take it one step at a time. We haven’t even won the Republican primary yet.
With that small matter about to be dispensed with Tuesday, it’s high time to re-open the speculation about the 2016 Whitman for President campaign (for the record, she said she would “sure, absolutely” finish one four-year term for governor) and break down the real from the surreal about that not-very-far-fetched scenario.
Barring a Lazarus-sized political miracle, Whitman will finally put Steve Poizner’s miserable campaign out of its misery tomorrow, promptly putting herself at the center of the nation’s political media conversation, where her high horsepower spin machine has already proved adept at stroking and feeding acolytes among the pundit class:
Meg Whitman is the most interesting person in American politics and, potentially, a formidable Republican leader at the national level…Like Ronald Reagan, she’s a well-known star from another field–the corporate world in Whitman’s case–who has entered California politics at the top and now intends to leapfrog an entire generation of ambitious political strivers…
But let’s assume Whitman is elected. She’d be governor of the biggest state, a brainy, conservative, accomplished woman at the top of the Republican ladder with precisely the experience that Sarah Palin lacks…When Reagan was elected governor in 1966, the speculation about national office–president, vice president–erupted instantly. If Whitman is elected in 2010, it will erupt again.
That conservative bloviator Fred Barnes wrote that over a year ago, at a time when eMeg had barely begun spending the $75-or-so million she’s since dug out of the sofa cushions to put her face in front of every Californian with a TV set four or five times a week, is a measure of how much thrill-up-the-leg excitement lies in store for us once she actually captures the damn nomination.
eMeg is about to go national in a big way and if Barnes is a bit, um, over-smitten in comparing her to the Gipper, he is most correct that being elected governor of California gives you automatic entry to the presidential speculation sweepstakes.
Think about it: the one question that’s never remotely been answered about her obsessive spending spree to buy the governorship is: Why the hell would she want the lousy job? (And don’t tell us it’s because she had an epiphany and — barf — realized she “won’t let California fail”)
Put another way, why else has Meg Whitman “invested” –- that’s the word she invariably uses when she’s asked about her obscene campaign spending — more than $71 million of her own fortune to capture the Republican nomination for governor? And why is she prepared to spend at least as much in the general election?
Answer: Because she wants to be president of the United States .
How does Calbuzz know this? Because it’s the first of our Three Rules of Politics*: They all want to be president of the United States .
But only a few of them wind up in positions where it’s actually possible. And if eMeg can defeat Attorney General Jerry Brown in November, she would be perfectly poised, at age 60, to run for president in 2016.
(Of course, there are a few wrinkles in the scenario. Mitt Romney, her 63-year old business and political mentor, has already moved into California as a base for his expected 2012 bid for president. Having eMeg ensconced in Sacramento clearly wouldn’t hurt Mutt’s chances, and the narrative of the dynamic duo fighting bravely to turn California from blue to red would be catnip for the Fred Barneses of the world. It makes no sense for Meg, however, to even think about playing second fiddle on a Romney ticket, when she could bide her time and go after the big prize herself.)
Which means: It’s entirely possible that California Attorney General Jerry Brown is the only thing standing between Meg Whitman and the White House.
This is not a comforting thought, especially since we have no experience on which to predict the standard quantum limit effect of $150 million in campaign spending by a candidate for governor.
Normally, one would expect that Whitman would have a hard time winning back the moderates, independents, women and Latinos she has alienated by taking knuckle-dragging, uber-nasty arch-conservative positions in the primary in order to win the hearts and minds of the GOP.
But we don’t know whether, by spending untold sums on campaign propaganda, Whitman will be able to obliterate the collective memory voters might otherwise have of her lurch to the right. Expect November Meg to look nothing like June Meg. She’ll be bright, sunny and inclusive, not the snarling, slashing attack machine she’s been in the primary.
So what’s Jerry Brown’s challenge? To win the independents — 20% of the electorate, compared to 45% Democrat and 31% Republican. And how can he and his independent allies do that? By:
1) Reminding voters about Goldman Sachs and eMeg’s special, elite deals and her failure even to be a voter, much less a problem solver for California.
2) Reminding voters of her flip-floppy positions on choice and offshore oil drilling, her assault on environmental regulation (especially AB 32) and her anti-Mexican-immigrant stand on border security.
3) Explaining how differently he would address spending and taxes, fairness and justice, public employees and education. His curbside, man-on-the-street populism versus her protect-the-rich, attack-the-worker program.
He won’t have $75 million so he’d better have some damn effective allies and he’d better generate some enthusiasm.
And thank you for that.
*The other two rules: The conventional wisdom is always wrong and; Nobody knows anything.