Calbuzz caught one of Meg Whitman’s hothouse flower political performances Tuesday and, we have to admit, she’s pretty good in a controlled setting before a small, safe audience.
Preaching to the choir, she delivered a well-honed, crisp and occasionally funny monologue (many of her jokes seem to feature her neurosurgeon husband, who allegedly likes to say, “It’s not brain surgery”) to a mostly Republican crowd of about 120 at a muffin and fruit salad breakfast in Santa Barbara, the very epicenter of California politics.
Although Her Megness once again stiffed Calbuzz on our primordial, sit-down interview request, our constant caterwauling about her inaccessibility may be paying incremental dividends, as she consented afterward to answer questions from reporters for 8 minutes and 13 seconds (our Department of Measureables and MBOs makes that 2 minutes and 3.25 seconds for each of the four scribes on hand). Then she blasted off to her next event in a gray Chevy Tahoe (shortly after extolling the virtues of green energy).
Enough with the sucking up.
The thrust of her schtick, which stayed relentlessly on a boost-business-bash-government message, is a kind of Neo-Checchism, in which she made the case for her candidacy by extolling her virtues as a business executive, promising to bring her gimlet-eyed, bottom line attitudes and experience to bear on state government, viz:
“I bring 30 years of business experience to managing state government and I will tell you my core belief is we have to run this a bit more like a business.”
“First and foremost I have run a very large organization with $8 billion in revenues and 15,000 employees and I’ve done that for many years, and I’ve also created jobs.
“We have to run (state government) like a business, because there’s no question that we are driving businesses out of California, and we have a government we can no longer afford.”
As a political matter: Putting aside for the moment the existential issue that government is, distinctly, not a business –- i.e. not established for the purposes of making a profit; producing goods and services in response to market demands; or serving only those with the ability to pay for the service it does provide — Whitman’s campaign positioning as the business candidate faces three big challenges:
1-The business of citizenship. As we’ve noted Californians have long been immune to the charms of wealthy private business types who consider the governorship to be an entry level job (see Governors Ron Unz, Al Checchi, Bill Simon, etc.), doubly so when a candidate has failed to perform the most basic duty of citizenship; thanks to Chronicler Carla Marinucci, we know that Whitman has a spotty voting record, failing to register until 2002, missing over half the elections since (including the 2003 recall) and not signing up as a Republican until 2007.
2-The business of business. Checchi, who spent millions of his own fortune in a failed bid for the Democratic nomination in 1998, also showed how past business practices and decisions can ensnare a corporate executive candidate.
To cite just two examples of circumstances which invite the press and eMeg’s rivals to ask if this is the kind of financial expertise she’ll bring to Sacramento:
a) As CEO she hailed as a great coup her engineering of eBay’s acquisition of the online calling service Skype. The New York Times on Tuesday described it as “one of the worst technology transactions of the decade,” in reporting that eBay is about to sell Skype at a substantial loss.
b) Back in the halcyon dot-com days, as the B- has reported, she also “attracted controversy and criticism for accepting exclusive opportunities to invest in initial public stock offerings,” a practice that “led to a shareholder lawsuit against Whitman and others (and) also exposed Whitman to the national political scene when her investment drew a public thrashing by Congress.”
3-The boardroom business. While sticking to non-threatening, controlled venues, Whitman keeps ducking substantive interviews with serious California political media and debates with her rivals. The latest: her avoidance of the big Silicon Valley Leadership Group’s confab later this month which every candidate for governor except her has agreed to attend. Our friend Joe Garafoli also reports that KGO is having trouble dealing with her in their effort to put on a radio debate. This follows her earlier no-show at a Sacramento debate including GOP foes Steve Poizner and Tom Campbell, and her refusal to commit to another Republican event organized by Chapman University.
“We will certainly find time to debate between now and the primary, trust me,” she assured reporters when asked about this on Tuesday.
But being on the defensive about such an issue at this early stage of the campaign makes her look, well, afraid to venture outside her campaign cocoon, and suggests a sense of entitlement more befitting a penthouse boardroom maven than an elected official in the public arena.
As a policy matter: In her spiel, Whitman revealed an intriguing understanding of how government works. Asked directly how she can be effective in the swamp of Sacramento, eMeg claimed that she – unlike, oh say, all those stiffs who have preceded her – will use “all the levers you have as governor.” To wit:
1-Appointments. For starters, she talked about a “big infusion of the private sector into the government” and said that in selecting the 4,000 state employees under her purview she will get “exactly the right people in the right job.”
Well, actually not. There’s the small matter of attracting private sector talent – from Florida, Texas and elsewhere, she vowed – for public wages (we’ll also guess that all that far-flung talent just dying to move to River City will find California’s relocation benefits not quite up to eBay standards). Not to mention the power of the (Democratic) Legislature to torpedo or stall many of her star power appointments, or the thorny problem of trying to staff up an administration on the fly; as Obama is finding out, getting your team in place on the field while the clock is inexorably ticking is trickier than it looks.
2-Veto power. eMeg thundered about how she’ll whip the Legislature into shape: “You have to let the Legislature know what you will and will not put up with,” she said Tuesday. “You have to veto consistently so that they know what you will sign and what you won’t.” Bad dog! No peeing on the rug! Don’t ever do that again!
Excuse us, Your All-Mighty Megness, but every one of those 120 characters in what you might call your co-equal branch of government has his or her own narrow interests and constituency, and structurally none of them has much reason to fear you or your rolled up newspaper.
3-Ballot initiatives. Whitman called “the proposition process” a “double-edged sword” that needs fixing. The “pacing and sequencing of propositions is incredibly important,” she said, adding: “I think you can only do one at a time.” Really? And the governor controls this how, exactly?
4-Leadership. Being governor, she said, is the “ultimate test of leadership and conviction” for which she is well suited because she’s “tough as nails” and has “a spine of steel.” She added: “If you have a huge need to be liked and to be popular all the time, this is not the job.”
The Calbuzz Aha Moment: Elections, it turns out, are not popularity contests. Why hasn’t anyone thought of that before?