Right now, Meg Whitman is spending millions to convince Republican primary voters that she’s the most authentic, conservative, anti-tax candidate for governor. Steve Poizner is doing the same (though he’s spending fewer millions).

They’re both full of it. Everything we know about both of these two people is that they are mainstream, hyper-ambitious, business-oriented, socially moderate folks who weren’t particularly conservative or anti-tax before they got into Republican politics. So let’s cut through the nonsense. (I know, I know, without the nonsense there’d be no campaign, but let’s just try it here, as an intellectual exercise).

Does Whitman really believe what she’s saying about herself – and about Poizner? Does Poizner really believe what he’s saying about himself and about Whitman?


At least I hope the answer is no. Wouldn’t it be sort of scary if either of them believed what he or she is saying?

Which is precisely the problem.

Now, before my sources in the Whitman and Poizner campaigns pick up the phone to call me and dispute this, answer this question:

Will Whitman and Poizner be saying the same things after the primary? Of course not.

They’ll be saying the opposite.

The winner of the primary will be telling us what a pragmatic centrist he or she is. The loser will be talking about what a great governor the winner will make.

All this b.s. is perfectly rational. Our primary system demands this pandering to right-wingers (or left-wingers, among Democrats) in the primary, and then a total reversal of form in the general election.

Is there any better explanation for voters’ cynicism about politicians and the decline of civic engagement in our state and our country?

The fault, though, lies not in the politicians (I’ve met and interviewed Whitman and Poizner and their associates; when not running for office, they are honest and admirable people) but in a system that all but requires them to say things they know to be untrue.

The reforms that get the most attention in California – redistricting, top two primary – won’t do much to change this dynamic. We need to look at stronger changes in our voting systems, such as ranked choice voting (which discourages candidates in multi-candidate races from tearing each other down, because there is value in being the second choice), truly open primaries, and proportional representation-style systems (which, if well constructed, create incentives to focus more on issues).

The goal ought to be election systems that encourage candidates to tell the truth and debate the issues.