Is Meg Whitman the Next George W. Bush?

David Frum is riding high these days. What with calling his party to the mat for not working with the Democrats on health care, he’s a darling of the media these days.  So, today’s he’s got an op-ed on that might interest a few Calitics readers.  Essentially, the thesis is that California can be the new birthplace of ReaganRevolution 2.0.

California Republicans are feeling an emotion they have not felt for years: hope. Not only may Republicans elect a governor, but also they have a credible chance of defeating incumbent Barbara Boxer and electing a U.S. senator for the first time since 1988.

Might the state of Ronald Reagan be returning to its old party loyalty? Even a little? If so, that return will have powerful consequences not just for California, but the country.

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But what if California returned to its former loyalties? California’s most recent Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was foreign-born and constitutionally ineligible to run for president. But if Meg Whitman wins the GOP nomination (as seems likely) and then the governorship, she’ll instantly become a leading candidate for vice president in 2012 and a likely presidential candidate for 2016. (CNN)

I lived in Texas back in 1994 when George W. Bush took down a very popular governor in Ann Richards. You could point to some similarities with Jerry Brown and his level of nameID and background support. But the parallels to Bush break down where so many other dreams come crashing down these days: on the shores of our dysfunctional government.

Let’s start from the beginning. Whitman has no smooth sailing to the Horseshoe, even with her $150 million. Jerry Brown, while admittedly sliding in the polls as Whitman pursues her all out media attack, is still a strong candidate.  

In 1994, George W Bush had a relative cakewalk to the primary and arrived in the general looking fairly benign.  He hewed to the middle (for Texas anyway) and governed a Texas government where the Democrats (who held legislative majorities) worked with the Governor. He was able to produce a few pieces of meaningful legislation by cooperating with legislative figures like the legendary Democratic Lt. Governor Bob Bullock.

Meg Whitman has announced that she will not work on a cooperative relationship with the legislature, rather, she will seek to bend them to her will. Not really the best starting point for building an effective government. Furthermore

Let’s be honest here, Governor Meg Whitman, at best, will be the third term of Governor Schwarzenegger. He’s done so well that he’s at Davis recall level approval ratings. And she’s committed to more brinskmanship, more posturing, and creating fights wherever possible.

And even if she were to work with the Democratic majorities, she’d soon discover that once you go down that road you have difficulties getting Republican votes.  And then you have difficulties getting Republican primary votes. Try asking some Republicans if they’d vote for Schwarzenegger in a primary these days.

And then, there’s the fact that any governor who inherits the gig from Schwarzenegger is coming into a morass that would have sucked in almost any politician. There are no easy answers to getting our government working again, and once you step in to that role, you will bear the political ramifications of our dysfunctional system.

So, Meg Whitman 2012/2016?  David, I wouldn’t print up the stickers just yet.

2 thoughts on “Is Meg Whitman the Next George W. Bush?”

  1. I believe Brown will win this, but if Whitman did end up winning, you’ve correctly pointed out the reasons why she would not be effective. She’d clearly be damaged goods by the time the 2012 election rolled around.

  2. I’ve seen Republicans come back from the dead too many times in California to write them off. For the last 75 years it’s looked like California was going to blaze a progressive trail and leave the Republicans and the right behind, but in almost every single decade they have been able to rally back and take advantage of some kind of backlash and ride it into office.

    Each time they do so with a very clever appeal to what is a Democratic electorate, an appeal that translates very well to a national campaign.

    Additionally, Republicans have consistently shown an ability to win the governor’s office in this state even when Democrats are winning the state’s Senate seats and electoral votes. Since 1900 only four Democrats have been elected governor. Two of them were named Edmund G. Brown, and the other two were failed one-termers.

    These Republican zombie revivals happen when Democrats have fail to deliver for the people of this state. Sometimes it’s a different problem, an inability to contend with a well-funded and slick right-wing attack (which brought down Pat Brown in 1966). But more often than not, the problem is that Dems haven’t gone out with a clear and coherent progressive vision and lost the election because of it.

    Frum’s argument has some logical holes, including the fact that California Republicans, including Whitman, Campbell and Fiorina, are every bit as right-wing as George W. Bush. And as Brian rightly points out, whatever luster Whitman might carry into office in 2011 should she win will quickly wear off as she too gets ground down by the state’s broken political system, economic weakness, and budget problems, all of which she has shown no interest at all in solving.

    And yet Frum is indeed correct that if Whitman can indeed win the 2010 election, that alone would suggest she has the ability to use whatever formula she rode to victory at the national stage. Many of us expect that Whitman will be the VP nominee in 2012 alongside Romney, and that she would indeed run in 2016 after Obama’s second term is up.

    Whitman’s strategy relies on bringing independent white voters over age 40 to her side and hoping that younger and nonwhite voters stay home. She plans to present herself as a centrist, playing down her conservatism and even her Republicanism. And she’s going to sell it with a well-funded and slick ad campaign that has already worked in moving the needle her way.

    Democrats can counter this. But doing so involves putting the band back together from 2008, bringing out the Democratic-friendly electorate that gave Obama a 20-point win. And that in turn requires Democrats to offer bold stands on the issues, progressive stands that are drawn in sharp contrast to the right-wing nature of their opposition.

    That wasn’t done in 2006, or 2003, or 1994, or 1990, or 1986, or 1982, or 1970, or 1966, or 1954, or 1950, or 1946, or 1942. (It was done in 1934, but the party structure ran a centrist to undermine the progressive, Upton Sinclair, so that doesn’t really disprove my argument.)

    In short, the way to prove Frum wrong and to frustrate the Zombie Death Cult is for Democrats to not play for a small segment of a supposedly “centrist” electorate, but to be bold and expand the electorate as was done in 2008. Let’s hope Boxer and Brown and Burton are up to the task.

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