Nothing we saw at the California Republican Party convention last weekend suggested that either of the leading GOP candidates, Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina, has a strategic message or distilled election theme that goes much beyond unrelenting negativity about government and their opponents.
“Enough is enough,” seemed to be the closest thing to an overarching slogan from any candidate and that’s not much to hang a campaign on. While “Yes we can” could be translated into “Si se puede” for Latino voters, don’t hold your breath waiting for the cries of “¡Basta Ya!”
Even if it worked linguistically, what does it mean? Who does it recommend? More importantly, where the Republican’s Reaganesque sunny optimism? Or even the Bushy saccharine positivism?
Instead, the California GOP of 2010 says, the hell with that stupid shining city on the hill: let’s tear down that derelict village in the valley, by God.
It’s telling that the most enthusiastic response of the convention came when secretary of state candidate Damon Dunn kept yelling “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” When your best campaign theme is a line filched from “Network” — a 1976 movie written by Paddy Chayefsky and delivered by Peter Finch — you know you’re struggling to come up with what communications professionals like to call a (quote-unquote) message.
Whitman (“A New California”) and Fiorina (“Protect the American Dream”) pay lip service to the great possibilities that lie in California’s future. Their most constant rhetoric, however, is all about the sorry state of affairs in Sacramento and Washington and the horrible impact Democratic foes Jerry Brown and Barbara Boxer have had and will have on civic life.
It is the Republican’s great good fortune that neither Brown nor Boxer has yet developed a concise and coherent theme, either. Brown’s slogan is a flaccid “Let’s get California working again” and Boxer’s is, er, well, she doesn’t seem to have one at all.
But just 10 weeks before the election, one would expect the GOP convention to serve as the venue for the candidates to roll out their meta-message for the fall campaign as a rallying cry for the party faithful. It didn’t happen.
Instead, Whitman tried to argue that she was running against the incumbent governor: “After four years as attorney general, four years as secretary of state, eight years as mayor of Oakland and two terms as governor, we once and for all are going to say goodbye to Jerry Brown’s failed ideas and broken promises,” she told the delegates.
California can’t afford Brown’s “radical approach and failed philosophies” when the state is facing an unemployment crisis that is “tearing at the fabric of our very culture” and “strangling” business with unnecessary rules and regulations.
Sheesh. Given that state of affairs, you’d think she’d be pissed at Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger – the actual incumbent.
Fiorina, at least, can rightly complain about a Democratic president and U.S. Senator whom she portrays as closet socialists who are weakening the social structure.
But man is she a downer:
I’ve crossed every region of California and I have found islands of despair. In our beautiful state, there is a steady, grinding injustice where the failed policies of Washington’s ruling class have smothered hopes in the lives of hundreds of thousands of people — losing jobs, losing homes, destroying businesses, and worse, sapping the life and the strength and the dreams out of working families in every corner and every county.
Guess we’ll just slit our throats right now and be done with it.
To their credit neither Whitman nor Fiorina appears ready to throw in with what columnist E.J. Dionne calls “the rise of angry, irrational extremism” of the Glenn Beck, Tea Party variety.
Of course, in California, that would not be smart political strategy, which explains why Whitman’s royalists killed a resolution to back Arizona’s “papers please” immigration law and why Fiorina had to be racked by reporters to acknowledge she thought the resolution might be “appropriate” before she was swept away by her handlers.
But neither do they advocate the optimistic conservatism of candidates like Marco Rubio of Florida who says, “Vote for us because you couldn’t possibly vote for them? That’s not enough. It may win some seats, but it won’t take you where you want to be.”
Fiorina’s negativity has a stronger rationale than eMeg’s: she is trying to oust an incumbent United States Senator and has to make the case both against Boxer and for herself. She’s doing a pretty good job of the former if not too well on the latter.
But Whitman is running mostly against Brown who, last we checked, is not the incumbent. Her campaign’s strategy is to make him look like the incumbent, but that has led to such a negative approach that Whitman has been unable to get above 40% favorable despite spending ungodly amounts of money.
Whitman’s big problem is that, after pouring $104 million into her effort, her campaign has failed to craft, let alone sustain, a clear and consistent positive message that gives voters a reason to be for her instead of just being against Brown.
Bottom line: In the end, “Say Goodbye to Jerry” won’t be enough to get her over.