Meg Whitman vs. Jerry Brown – Steel-Cage Smackdown
posted at 9:08 pm on October 13, 2010 by Dafydd ab Hugh
In a wide-ranging, freewheeling debate last night between the two candidates for governor of California — Attorney General and former Gov. Jerry “Moonbeam” Brown (Democrat) and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman (Republican) — each disputant made one major gaffe; but Brown’s was worse than Whitman’s, in my opinion.
Too, Whitman was overall more focused and on-message, more believable, and more coherent by a long shot. Brown by contrast rambled on like your crazy uncle who lives in the basement, hurling out incomprehensible numbers so rapidly that even I, who follow politics like a fiend, couldn’t follow him. Half the time, I had no idea what the heck he was even talking about.
NBC anchor and ultra-liberal Democrat Tom Brokaw actually did a pretty good job of being even-handed this time; I have a feeling even he and his cohorts are rather skeptical of another term for Mr. Brown. But Brokaw lost control frequently, as each candidate ignored Brokaw’s attempts to move on to the next question and instead persisted in responding to what his opponent said. I applaud this; I’m much more interested in follow-up As between the candidates than in listening to Brokaw’s carefully stage-managed laundry list of Qs.
I cannot imagine that Jerry Brown did himself any good with this debate. For one thing, Whitman was the clear aggressor; she was on offence, leaving Brown to play defense. (Very defensively: Brown’s shocked look, as he peered left and right whenever she attacked his record or his campaign proposals — What… me? You’re mean me? — was simply priceless!)
But Whitman certainly regained the aura of leadership that she held before the first debate, which I didn’t see (it wasn’t broadcast, only webcast). Once polls finally start flowing here in the Golden State, I expect we’ll see Whitman moving up at Brown’s expense.
But let’s get to the juicy stuff…
The gaffes – Whitman flubs the whore shot
Brokaw brought up the “whore” incident… and I expect I must explain exactly what that was:
Background: Both Brown and Whitman had been seeking the support of police and fire-fighter unions, but Whitman got all but one of them. In particular, both campaigns went after the Los Angeles Police Protective League.
Whitman is pushing for reform of public-employee union pensions, which are bankrupting California (and many other states); she wants to switch those pensions from defined benefit funds — where a specific, dollar-amount monthly pension is awarded after retirement — to defined contribution funds, where the state contributes a specific amount to a 401K plan, to which the employee also contributes. The former leads to economic catastrophe, as the pensions rise and rise without limit, eventually eating up the entire state budget; but the latter are more manageable, with the state contribution being strictly limited.
So Whitman wants to switch to defined contribution for future hires; but she makes an exception for police and firefighters (about 25% of public retirees) — on grounds, she says, that they put their lives on the line every day for Californios.
About a week or so ago, Brown called up the LAPPL, hoping for an endorsement; he got voicemail and left his pitch. But either he or a staffer inexpertly hung up the phone, and an ensuing lively conversation among Brown and his campaign workers was recorded for posterity on the LAPPL’s answering machine.
In the course of that discussion, some still unknown (or at least unrevealed) person suggested calling Meg Whitman a “whore” because she had agreed to support a “defined benefit” pension fund for police and fire pensions. One presumes the caller meant the term in the sense of “will change her position for money;” but the word certainly has a very nasty connotation when applied to a particular woman.
Since the Police Protective League had already decided to endorse Meg Whitman instead, because she would crack down harder on crime and criminals, they decided to share the unintended recording with various newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times and the L.A. Weekly.
So as I said, Tom Brokaw asked about the “whore” comment, which he called the “hundred thousand pound gorilla in the room,” during the debate. Specifically, Brokaw asked Brown whether the word “whore,” applied to a woman, was as bad as the N-word applied to a black person. After a half-apology, Brown dismissed the comparison — eliciting loud moans throughout the audience; at that point, the crowd was thoroughly on Whitman’s side, and she could have hammered the point home.
But then Brown turned the tables, demanding to know whether Whitman had reprimanded her campaign chairman, former Gov. Pete Wilson, for calling Congress generally a passle of whores. Evidently caught off guard, Whitman responded very lamely: “Now you know that’s a completely different thing,” she said (to the best of my recollection).
This immediately flipped the audience against her; they hooted derisively. In the end, I think it became a neutral issue, rather than hurting Brown.
What should she had said? I have a much better answer… and had she been prepared for the countercharge, I suspect she would have thought of this as well. I would have advised her to say the following:
I think it was rude and offensive when Pete said that, fifteen years ago. But it’s one thing to use an offensive term as a general attack on Congress — it’s much, much worse to use that same word to directly attack an individual person, an individual woman. One of the best scenes in the movie Mean Girls was when the girls’ gym teacher got them to stop calling each other “ho’s,” and taught them instead to give other girls — and boys — the respect we all deserve.
Because it really is different, of course, to talk about a parliament of whores than it is to point at a particular woman and call her, personally a whore. If you’re interested (and even if you aren’t!), here is the 1995 Pete Wilson comment in context, followed by the Brown campaign worker’s comment in full:
After learning that a federal judge had ruled California might be liable for up to $500 million in damages over its issuance of IOUs during a budget crisis in 1992, [Gov. Pete] Wilson lashed out at Congress for having approved the Depression-era Fair Labor Practices Act.
“I don’t blame the judge; he is interpreting the law,” Wilson said during a speech before the National Association of Wholesalers Wednesday. “I blame the Congress for being such whores to public employees unions that they would pass that kind of legislation.”
And the Brown campaigner:
In the call recorded by the Los Angeles Police Protective League (which sent the audio to the Weekly and other outlets), Brown seems frustrated by pressure to vow to protect law enforcement pensions at a time when such benefits are under scrutiny for the heavy burden they place on taxpayers.
” … I have been warned if I crack down on pensions … they’ll go to Whitman, and that’s where they’ll go because they know Whitman will give ’em … a deal, but I won’t,” Brown said.
His associate then says, “What about saying she’s a whore?”
Brown declines the offer to colorfully portray Whitman in television as a patsy to the police unions.
The gaffes – Brown’s Homer-Simpson moment
Jerry Brown performed his own interpretation of one of those scenes where Homer is thinking the truth and telling a fib, but he gets mixed up and accidentally thinks the fib and tells the truth instead.
Whitman had hit Brown several times with the fact that the police and firefighter unions were all supporting her, while the other, less savory public-employee unions were all financing Jerry Brown’s campaign — and incidentally paying for the “independent” attack ads against Whitman.
Brown objected strenuously, trotting out his endorsement by the California Police Chiefs Association. Now bear in mind, police chiefs are not the same as police officers; in fact, police chiefs (or police commissioners) often aren’t even police officers at all, and may never have served for a single day on the streets. They are politicians appointed by other politicians (mayors, city councils) to supply civilian control to the police department.
Even when the police chief is an actual cop, he has generally long since ceased doing real police work, becoming an administrator instead; and he is never picked for his policing ability but rather for purely political reasons. So it’s no surprise that the CPCA and the LAPPL are often at odds with each other… for example, when the Los Angeles Police Department’s Chief of Police throws rank-and-file officers under the bus over an excessive-force accusation, rather than defending the cops.
Anyway, Jerry Brown objected to Whitman saying she had the support of police and firefighters; he wanted to say he has the backing of the chiefs of police, but it didn’t quite come out that way:
Brown, meaning to say “I’ve got the police chiefs’ backing,” instead started “I’ve got the police chiefs in my back […]” before pausing to correct himself. Whitman interrupted, laughing as she said, “I think he said he’s got the police chiefs in his back pocket.”
While I don’t think such minor gaffes generally make much of a difference in a race (there are exceptions, such as President Gerald Ford misspeaking in a debate, saying that Poland wasn’t dominated by the Soviet Union), I nevertheless believe that Brown’s gaffe was much worse than Whitman’s: She only said that calling a group of people “whores” was not the same thing as calling a specific individual woman a whore; this is true, even if it sounds a little trite, in the absence of explanation.
But Brown inadvertently blurted out a deep truth: He has the police chiefs, and indeed the non-security-related public-employee unions, in his back pocket… and more sinisterly, they have him in theirs.
This plays directly into one of Whitman’s campaign themes, that Brown is beholden to all the various left-liberal money machines who paid for his campaign; and he will do their bidding if he gets back into the governor’s mansion. By contrast, Whitman’s self-funded campaign leaves her independent of the special interests, owing nothing to anybody but the California voters.
Democratic partisans swear that Brown delivered a “TKO” to Whitman in this debate; Republicans say she mopped the floor with him. But bottom line, as best I can call it, folks who are actually deciding who to vote for on the basis of this debate are much more likely to swing to Meg “Glam With a Plan” Whitman than to Jerry “Crazy Uncle” Brown.
I suspect that isn’t very many people… but in a race this close — Brown is ahead by 5.33% in the RCP average — even a small number of people landing on Whitman’s side can give her the victory. But we really can’t tell much; inexplicably, there hasn’t been a poll released in either this race or the California U.S. Senate race in nine days, just 20 days out from the election.
Cross-posted on Big Lizards…