Campaigns, by their nature, give incomplete and distorted pictures of candidates. That’s true of the very, very long contest for the GOP nomination for governor (a race that’s already more than a year old and will end, mercifully, next week).
That said, there are a few key bits of information that the campaign has revealed about the likely winner (if the polls may be believed), Meg Whitman. Here are the five things I’ve learned:
1. She does not think there is such a thing as overkill.
If you think California unemployment is bad now, imagine how bad things might have been without all the hiring Whitman did. The campaign is over-staffed, as Whitman gobbled up some people just to keep them away from Poizner. Her spending broke every existing record, propping up TV stations all over California. Whether the dollars could be justified by any metric seemed beyond the point. She had it, so she spent it.
2. She has a soul in there, somewhere.
This may sound like faint praise, but these are strange times. Under fire from Steve Poizner on the right over immigration, Whitman did everything she could to dress up her positions on immigration in conservative clothes, but she couldn’t bring herself to support the mindless Arizona law. This provided a bit of evidence that there’s a soul – and yes, a brain, given the demographic future of this state.
Her other departures from total demagoguery: not embracing across the board cuts in tax rates (as Poizner did) and holding onto her pro-choice position. These are small things, and there is political advantage to each of these, at least in a general election. And let’s not praise her too much: she was plenty capable of saying completely unbelievable demagogic things on the economy, government spending and welfare. But she’s not soulless. Ok, that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement, but it will have to do. Did I mention that these are strange times?
3. She does not need to be loved.
Whitman needs to win – and was willing to spend and do what it took – but there is little need for the crowd’s approval in her. This is a good thing-just look at the budget deficit projections for the next four years. The perfect person for this job is someone who enjoys being burned in effigy.
4. She hates the press and doesn’t see much value in open, public exchange.
Her avoidance of the press was strategic – it diminished expectations for her debates and public interviews, thus making mediocre performances look better. But Whitman seemed to loathe the give-and-take of media exchange – and of the discussion and public questioning that are the spice of life in democracy.
This is worrisome. There’s reason to fear that a Gov. Whitman won’t hear all sides and won’t engage in the kind of back-and-forth that produces new ideas. It’s also a safe bet that hers would be a secretive administration. It’s a good time for reporters to review the public records laws in preparation for many requests and legal fights.
5. She has a hard time admitting she’s wrong.
After Gov. Schwarzenegger, who changed his mind and admitted error easily, a stubborn governor might have some appeal. But there is something unsettling about Whitman’s certainty even when she’s wrong. The latest episode was her insistence that she hadn’t used the border fence in her own ads. (She had). I had one exchange with her last year when she insisted that the state’s population had grown only 3 percent since 2000. (This is easily checkable-the population growth has exceeded 9 percent in that period).
What does all of this mean for the fall campaign? I wish I knew for sure. But I don’t. I’m not Meg Whitman.