The Whitman Meltdown

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Wow. That was fast. Last Tuesday, Meg Whitman was officially launching her campaign. (Again). Now she’s melting down and her campaign is in deep trouble.

I just listened to audio of Meg Whitman’s press conference at the CRP. It was nothing less than a disaster. I say this as someone who has written, repeatedly, that it’s early in the campaign and that it’s unwise at this point to focus on the lack of specifics in her campaign. The transition to politics is a difficult one, I’ve written. Give her some space.

That’s over. No more space. A candidate for governor of California, even a political novice, should be able to answer, accurately, basic questions about her life and record. And the current controversy over her failure to register to vote before 2002 shows her to be incapable of this basic task.

Reporters – good and fair reporters – asked her very straightforward questions about her own voting that she couldn’t answer. The main query was: why didn’t you register to vote before 2002? The follow-up was: why did you mislead the public by saying previously that you had been registered to vote before that (and as a Republican)?

These questions had been asked for three days. Whitman should have been prepared to answer them. Instead, she stuck to non-responsive talking points about what “leaders” do and don’t do. Ugh.

You want to lose credibility with the working press? Do exactly what Meg Whitman did. And yes, the press may not matter as much as it once did, but reporters create impressions through their stories that eventually form the public perception of politicians. The perception Whitman is creating is that of a dilettante.

By dodging, Whitman has prolonged this controversy. It won’t go away until she gives detailed, honest answers.

What’s needed here is a press conference, scheduled as soon as possible. It should have no time limit. She needs to answer each and every question about this voting controversy in detail. Even if the answer is embarrassing.

Why didn’t you register? A good answer would be: “There’s no good reason why I didn’t register and vote, but since you’re asking, my lame reasons were that I thought I was too busy working, pursuing my career, raising a family and moving back and forth across the country.

Of course, there are lots of people who do all those things and still manage to vote. When you move that often and are doing this high-powered executive work, you’re a little bit rootless. Not only did we move a lot, but I traveled a lot for my work. I followed politics nationally, but I didn’t follow state politics and wasn’t as involved in my local community as I should have been. I really regret that, particularly as a parent. I failed in many ways.

“And a word for those who have been understandably confused by my descriptions of my voting record: I’m sorry. I blew it. It won’t happen again.”

Something like that should be followed by any other corrections she needs to make in her record. If there is anything that she’s put out that is wrong or misleading, this press conference would be the time to fix it. Call it the “No More Surprises” press conference.

After this, her campaign is going to have some very bad times. But there’s more than eight months until the primary. That’s enough time for a comeback.

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