Whitman: banal and unconvincing

JUNE 1, 2010

Steven Greenhut: I have rarely seen a political candidate who avoided taking tough stances during the election campaign suddenly get some courage and embrace a firm reform platform once in office. Unfortunately, the Republican Party’s best hope of keeping the California governorship out of the hands of Jerry Brown — the person arguably most responsible for the state’s gridlock and union dominance, based on his policies as governor — is Meg Whitman, the former eBay CEO. She leads in the polls, despite Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizners recent gap-closing putsch, and has the personal cash necessary to make a decent race out of it. She trails Brown in theoretical match-ups at this point, but she is within spitting distance — not that a high-brow Silicon Valley CEO would ever be caught spitting.

Whitman’s approach so far has been to avoid most tough issues, or at least allow enough wiggle room to run to the Left in the general election. I can’t blame her entirely for this strategy. Poizner is running to the right to win GOP base primary voters, but that could leave him in a tough spot if he pulls out the nomination and has to run in a general election in a state with a left-of-center mainstream. Still, Whitman has left so much wiggle room that it’s hard to believe that she will pursue any real reforms if elected.

For instance, Whitman has taken a supposedly tough stance on public employee pensions, which is a core issue given the state’s massive unfunded liability. But she wants to keep the reform of public safety pensions off of the table. Why bother, then, given that public safety pensions — especially those retroactive 90-percent-plus deals, with the scam disabilities — are the biggest problem?

“We must raise the retirement age for non–public safety [italics added] workers from 55 to 65,” she told National Review. “We must require state employees to contribute a larger portion of their salary to help pay for their retirement benefits. We must extend the vesting period, and we must bring new government workers in under a different deal where they receive a defined-contribution retirement plan similar to the 401(k) plans that most taxpayers have.”

It’s OK as far as it goes, but Whitman doesn’t go very far. And, quite frankly, she has little credibility on reform issues. Her handlers — and she has many aides and handlers, who keep her safely away from the public and the media, except in carefully managed events — insist that she means business about reform, but where is the evidence? The main evidence I see so far is that she led one pension reformer to believe that she would back a reform initiative, then she pulled her support from it so late in the game that there was no time to regroup. Unfortunately for Whitman, that evidence doesn’t work in her favor.

At a Roseville town hall, she said, “I’m announcing it here today, I want to form a statewide grand jury to fight fraud, fight waste and fight abuse.” This is the sort of meaningless reform candidates use on the campaign trail. It is not a reform agenda. Everyone is against waste and fraud, even those Democrats who believe that government should always get bigger. It simply is impossible to root out such waste and fraud, except around the margins. The problem is government does far more than it should be doing. Wherever one finds government, one finds waste. A new governor cannot go in and surgically remove the waste. She won’t be any different from the current governor, who promised to blow up the boxes of government. Instead the political establishment blew up his reform agenda.

My sense is her whole campaign is a put on. We have a billionaire CEO candidate who wants to be governor because, well, that’s a nifty thing to do after being a billionaire CEO. There aren’t many steps up from that — or from being a movie star, for that matter, per Arnold Schwarzenegger. Whitman is now crafting a focus-group-tested platform that she thinks will win her the election.  I don’t see any evidence of her having any longstanding political ideas or even any real interest in the political process (evidenced by her lack of voting) over the years.

And I worry about her instincts.

Whitman critics have been circulating information about her role in a Colorado eminent-domain case. Her efforts were disturbing, but it’s my guess that she didn’t and perhaps still doesn’t understand what was disturbing about them.

She owns properties in the trendy ski town of Telluride — a “lifestyles of the rich and famous” sort of place. I don’t begrudge her that. But a contractor named Neal Blue bought 880 acres of land outside the town in an effort to develop it into houses, hotels and golf courses. People in town didn’t want the new development. It was typical NIMBY stuff. “What you have in Telluride is a large constituency of people who moved here because they are of the mind that the Earth is imperiled,” a Telluride newspaper publisher told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “To them it’s important to draw the line and take a stand – and just say no.”

So the community fought the plans for two decades. As the Verum Serum blog reported, the town invoked the power of eminent domain to take 570 acres of the land from Blue in 2002 and, after getting the go-ahead from the state Supreme Court (which overturned a state law stopping cities from using eminent domain outside their city limits), tried to buy it for millions LESS than the value determined ultimately by a jury. As the U-T explained: “The jury’s findings left the town with a $24 million shortfall in its condemnation plans. The city itself has more or less exhausted its financial resources by raising almost $26 million for the valley floor acquisition – mostly by incurring bond debt. So the $50 million valuation set by the jury left the preservationists scrambling to make up the $24 million difference.”

Per the blogger: “This is where Meg Whitman publicly re-enters the picture. Not only did she personally donate $1.15 million to the condemnation fund, but raising $26 million in 90 days is no small undertaking. … Based on multiple reports, it appears [the leader of the fund-raising effort] was Meg Whitman.”

So she led the charge to raise the cash to “buy” property from someone who didn’t want to sell it. And then she attended a press conference championing this accomplishment: “Well, first of all, let me add my congratulations to the people of the town of Telluride and to everyone who supported this initiative. This is one of those incredible occasions where a small number of dedicated people came together and made it happen against all odds.”

Oh great … what a glorious day when people come together and use the power of the state to take away another person’s private property.

Flashreport blogger Larry Gilbert pointed to an interview Whitman had given in October to Flashreport Publisher Jon Fleischman. She opposed eminent domain abuses and championed property rights, although she did claim that people typically get full market value for the properties that are taken. I can point to instances where this has not happened and where the price of fighting for that fair-market value is so high that property owners settle for large losses. But that’s a side point. Whitman did state a sensible position to Flashreport: “My view is that it should be very hard for the government or a city, or a county to take people’s property rights.”

Yet that appears to be the type of superficial answer that we’ve come to expect from the type of empty conservative candidates the GOP seems to be fielding this year in many races. Yes, they have the rhetoric down in general terms, but do they really get it when the rubber hits the road? In the case of Meg Whitman, especially when it comes to property rights and pension reform, the answer is no.

Apparently, the California GOP has become such a niche party on the statewide level that it has to depend on self-funded multi-millionaires and billionaires. Often, these types of politicians — who try to get through an entire race with cliches about being a tough business manager — are absent when it comes to the basic liberties issues. Like Schwarzenegger, Whitman doesn’t seem to have a deeply honed political philosophy — just some general conservative leanings that are packaged by aides and then presented in rehearsed ways to the voting public.

Does anyone believe that Whitman has any deep knowledge or passion about limiting government and protecting our freedoms?

My slam on Whitman here is not to be construed as support for any other candidate. Poizner, for instance, has been taking some better positions, but he isn’t all that convincing either, and his background can also lead us to wonder whether this newfound conservatism is anything more than opportunism and political reality given the nature of GOP primary voters. One can also wonder why Poizner’s tenure as insurance commissioner has been something less than a great victory for advocates of the free market.

But Whitman is the likely victor in the primary. And it’s just too bad that at this hour, with the state of California in such desperate straits, that California can’t produce a visionary or even a credible reformer.

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