The Calbuzz Department of Prognostication and Power Tools has no formal opinion about the outcome of the fight between eMeg Whitman and Steve “The Commish” Poizner for the Republican nomination for governor.
But looking ahead, we just think it makes most sense to consider how Crusty the Attorney General Jerry Brown, a notorious skinflint, will try to frame the debate against eMeg’s unprecedented, $150 million Leviathan campaign.
You could say the fundamental question will be: Who do voters hate the most? A bloated-spending, jet-hopping, Goldman-Sachs-financed, tax-return-hiding, vote-averse corporate CEO? Or a lifelong, failed, dysfunctional, unreliable, flip-flopping, corrupt, know-it-all, career politician? Pick your poison.
Those surely will be elements of the messages Whitman and Brown will use to seek to destroy one another.
But our mission here is bigger than a mere string of invective characterizations. We are looking for what political scientists call a “frame” – a construction of ideas, metaphors, anecdotes, stereotypes, arguments and even (gasp) facts – for the campaign.megp
First, how will Whitman, with her untold millions, frame the debate? Most likely, as a contest between a successful and competent businesswoman against the aforementioned failed and dysfunctional politician. That’s what eMeg’s people believe – in their heart of hearts and their bulging pocketbooks, too – really defines the race.
Running against a Democrat like Jerry Brown is not rocket science. And rich candidates have failed in California in the past, not because they were rich but because they were stupid. Whitman has no idea what she’s doing but Mike Murphy & Co. are not stupid. They’ve made a couple of political errors (opposing AB 32 and calling for building more prisons) but in the primary, at least, they’ve gotten results from all that overspending.
It likely won’t be long before Poizner is dispatched and Whitman will be picking apart Brown’s record since, as a matter of fact, he’s been on most sides of most issues at one time or another over his long career. He has – his allies will have to admit — evolved, expanded and contracted, risen and fallen, twisted and turned and twisted back again.
So what can Brown do against $150 million? How can he frame the race successfully?
Can he, we wonder, turn Whitman’s greatest strength – her money – into a liability? Can he weaponize her money, turn it against her and drive it like a stake through her heart?
“She’s doing that herself,” said one Brown adviser. “She’s spending so much, Jerry doesn’t have to make the point.”
But he will. He’ll be the frugal pragmatist who sold the state plane, refused the governor’s mansion, slept on the floor in an apartment, drove in a blue Plymouth instead of a limousine and who’s doing the people’s business; while she’s flying in private jets, spending like Paris Hilton on steroids and refusing to disclose her taxes, perhaps because they’ll show she’s still hooked up with Goldman Sachs from whom she’s gotten special, secret deals.
He’ll be the cheapskate, curbside populist, casting her as the profligate, arrogant billionaire. He’s from the mean streets of Oakland by way of Calcutta (forget Cal and Yale); she’s from Atherton by way of Long Island, the horsey set and Princeton.
Most important, Brown will argue that while he’s authentic, she is artificial. He’s the real deal; she’s a brand name. He’s meat and potatoes; she’s Mrs. Potato Head.
He will try to frame the debate using free media as much as possible (as he did with the debate challenge to Whitman and Poizner). Whether it will work is totally unclear. Conventional wisdom suggests you cannot reach and move voters in California unless you are on paid TV. Constantly.
That’s not going to be an option for Brown. Instead, he’ll rely on Jerry Brown Kung Fu. Whether that’s enough, Grasshopper, we know not, yet.