One of the curiosities of the gubernatorial campaign involves the public relations competence of both candidates. Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman are supposed to be smart people, so why do they keep turning p.r. brush fires into roaring infernos?
The two most recent examples are instructive. Jerry Brown, by not identifying the campaign aide who suggested portraying Whitman as a "whore" on an accidentally recorded voice mail message, turned what should have been a one-day story into a week-long drama.
Whitman, by blaming the messenger (Gloria Allred) and trying to deflect responsibility for her employment of an undocumented housekeeper, made an irrelevant allegation (hypocrisy on immigration is so common it could be the official California state sport) into an ongoing controversy that still dogs her, two weeks later.
What’s particularly striking about how Brown and Whitman mishandled these two controversies is that they seem to have learned nothing from previous, similar mistakes.
Earlier in the campaign, Brown compared Whitman to the Nazi propagandist Goebbels during a conversation with a radio reporter while he was jogging; Brown delayed apologizing for days and gave the story legs.
Months ago, Whitman thoroughly mishandled reports about her voting record, conducting an infamous press conference in which she couldn’t answer a simple question about why she didn’t vote.
What do these mistakes say about the candidates? Three things:
1. They are thin-skinned and too sensitive to media criticism.
In each of these controversies, Brown and Whitman, instead of taking responsibility and apologizing, have tried to argue that they were being treated unfairly by the media. Brown argued that his Goebbels comment – and his aide’s "whore" comment – didn’t matter because they were uttered in private conversations. Tell it to the judge, Jerry.
Whitman at first pushed back against reporting on the particulars of her voting record (some of which was wrong) instead of going right into a full grovel. (She eventually had to do that grovel anyway).
In the housekeeper case, Whitman and her campaign kept the story alive by framing the allegations as part of some conspiracy by her opponents. And there’s plenty of evidence that it may have been. Certainly, her political opponents made the housekeeper’s grievances public. (Gloria Molina is a Brown supporter and a spokesman for the California Nurses Assn., attended the housekeeper’s press conference.)
But the source of the allegation doesn’t much matter when the substance of what was being said is true: Whitman employed an undocumented immigrant. Instead of trying to launch further media investigation of the story’s origins, Whitman should have apologized to the public and all concerned, and moved back to subjects such as jobs and education.
2. Both candidates see themselves as moralists
It would be hard to find two more self-righteous candidates. Brown constantly describes himself as a truthteller — even as he rewrites the history of his first governorship. Whitman has been even more dishonest about Brown’s record than Brown.
Brown lashed out at Bill Clinton morally when a clip of the former president was used against him in a Whitman ad. (And Brown had to apologize). And Brown, after a lifetime of raising money for interest groups and companies, criticizes Whitman for doing the same.
Whitman, for her part, constantly accuses Brown of being corrupted or in the pocket of interests, particularly unions, even as she raises tens of millions of money she doesn’t need from people with business before the government.
3. Maybe they like talking about these personal controversies.
In normal campaigns, when a candidate is attacked personally, he or she can pivot back to big themes and policies that express their reason for running. But neither Whitman nor Brown has developed big themes or even a clear rationale for running. Neither is offering policies that could meet California’s systemic challenges.
Perhaps they talk too long about whores and housekeepers because they have so little else to say.