Whitman and Lessons Learned
So, in the aftermath of the ring-dang-do between Meg Whitman’s campaign and the illegal immigrant who claimed she was (emotionally) abused and abandoned after nine years on the Republican gubernatorial nominee’s payroll, it would seem the adage is true: good help really is hard to find.
Something else we found out: Whitman’s troubles fit into a lot of what ails American politics in general, California in particular.
1) Never a Good Thing to Attack the Accuser. James Carville once said of Paula Jones: “Drag a hundred-dollar bill though a trailer park, you never know what you find.” Elizabeth Edwards may or may not have used Internet aliases to trash Rielle Hunter, her hubby’s baby mama. After a stuntwoman claimed Arnold Schwarzenegger had groped her, the future governor’s recall campaign went into full-throttle attack mode — in its over-reacting haste, confusing her with a convicted felon of the same name and spawning a defamation case. The point is: if your first response is to attack the accuser’s character, you usually play into your opponent’s hands. Angry candidate vs. weeping “victim” is a cinematic mismatch. Whitman fell in this trap, accusing her former housekeeper of lying before backing off with a softer approach in Saturday’s debate, suggesting her accuser was being used for others’ political purposes. Better to focus on the people who talked her accuser into going public.
2) Welcome to How Democrats Play in California. Remember Bruce Hershenson? He ran for the U.S. Senate against Barbara Boxer in 1992 and lost after a Democratic Party official spread word that the conservative Republican liked to read porno magazines at newsstands. Two years later, once again in a U.S. Senate race, Republican Michael Huffington’s campaign went off the tracks after word got out that he and his wife (yes, Arianna) had employed an illegal nanny for five years. And there was the Rhonda Miller spectacle in the 2003 recall — a political hit arranged by Gloria Allred, the same attorney who trotted out Whitman’s accuser this go-round (a fact left out of a lot of stories). Back then, Gloria trotted out her “victim” at noon on the day before the election. This time, a month out. And so it goes for Republicans in California in 2010: different campaign, same tactics.
3) Forget the “How or the “Why”, Political Reporters Obsess over “What’s Next”. Reporters called me last Friday to get my take on the controversy. One conversation began with: “So, do you think [the election] is over?” Another: “How does she possibly get out of this.” Classic hair on fire. Every political press secretary discovers this sooner or later: reporters don’t like to reconstruct an accident, they’re more interested in the aftermath. Put California’s political reporters in Dealey Plaza on that fateful day in 1963 and they wouldn’t want to investigate who shot JFK and why; they’d want to speculate about the bump in LBJ’s poll numbers. The shame about the disinterest in forensics is this particular controversy has lots of unanswered questions (that, sadly, probably will stay that way), such as: how did Whitman’s accuser find Allred (note: after I wrote this, Allred went on Fox News and told Megyn Kelly that Nicky Diaz Santillan was referred to her by an unnamed fellow attorney); why would SEIU want to devote $5 million and precious ad time to this topic; is it coincidence that Jerry Brown’s campaign just released a “shouldn’t character matter?” attack ad; finally, is it coincidence that the housekeeper’s allegation couldn’t be better timed — three days before a Univision debate, and soon before absentee-voting begins and voter-registration ends (two presumed advantages for the California GOP in this election).
4) Republicans’ Latino Void. Let’s go back to Arnold and the recall. Cornered by allegations that he had a history of manhandling women, Schwarzenegger turned to the perfect surrogate to bail him out with presumably offended women: his wife, Maria Shriver. She asked: whom should Californians trust, people who’ve known her husband but briefly, or her? Game, set, match. Whitman’s husband, Dr. Griff Harsh, both stood by his wife and put out a written statement backing her up, but there was no public indignation ala Maria (which might say something about role reversal when it’s the missus who’s the candidate). Here’s my question: who’s going to stand up for Whitman en español among Latinos (¿Dónde está Abel Maldonado?). Whitman has increased her Latino tv spots by 50%, but it’s the day-to-conversation on the street that’s troublesome from here on. Remember how the Bush Administration engaged in Muslim outreach, only to find news filtered by Al Jazeera? That’s not unlike the situation facing Whitman with California’s Hispanic media.
5) When in Trouble, Turn Populist. Campaigning for survival in New Hampshire in 1992, Bill Clinton promised to keep going until “the last dog dies”. It was corny, but it got Clinton a second-place finish and kept him in the game. I’m not suggesting Meg Whitman don bib overalls and start orating from the back of a flatbed, but maybe it’s time to think about shedding the über-cautious pant-suits-and-flats centrist style for something a little more passionate and populist — i.e., “the people vs. the powerful”. The state’s largest public-employees’ union is trying to do her in because they fear a showdown on pension reform. A stunt-lawyer is trying to do to her what she couldn’t do to Arnold. If I were Whitman, I’d work every conservative talk radio show up and down the state, and rally the base. And I’d talk directly to independents — maybe a tv ad explaining how the powers-that-be in Sacramento are resorting to disraction and personal distraction.
It’s a big challenge for Whitman: finding a way to get past the housekeeper, to get a crack at getting Sacramento’s house in order.