Monday, August 30, 2010

The Retread and the Rookie

Don't look now, folks, but there's an election coming up soon.

Nothing much at stake here, just the fate of a once vibrant state so awash in red ink and incompetent political leadership that it threatens to become a West Coast version of Mississippi.

And who will lead us out of the darkness?

Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman tell us they can do the job, but neither inspire a lot of confidence. There are no Kennedys or Reagans in this race.

What to make of Jerry Brown? He was a post-Watergate breath of fresh air when he became governor in 1975, a mixture of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism but who at times was so ethereal he was difficult to comprehend.

For all his high mindedness, he is at heart a career politician. Governor for two terms, mayor of Oakland, chairman of the state Democratic Party, state attorney general. He ran for president three times and the U.S. Senate once.

Brown was a political minimalist, who governed in what he called an "era of limits."

He was at the helm when Prop. 13 passed, a measure which has dominated the California economic landscape since 1978 for better or worse. He opposed it but couldn't prevent its passage.

Now, at age 70, he wants to be governor again. Whatever else he brings to the table, I remain astounded that the Democratic Party, with a chance to seize the statehouse from a badly flawed Republican, has pinned its hopes on a retread.

Is the salvation of our future to be found in our past? Or is it in an unknown who was so out of touch politically that she didn't vote for more than 20 years.

Republican Meg Whitman is throwing around money like the billionaire that she is, nearly $100 million of her own cash at last report, in order to get elected.

Forget that this former eBay CEO is by herself making this the most expensive gubernatorial race in history. Forget that playing princess to Brown's pauper may be a bad political decision in an economically depressed state with a soaring unemployment rate. Forget that she has hired 56 different political consulting firms.

What Whitman is buying here is exposure, lots and lots of it. She has so saturated the airwaves, it's impossible to watch TV or listen to the radio without exposure to a Whitman ad.

Does it work? Sure, people know her although I'm beginning to wonder if they aren't tuning her out, like one of those irritating Quizno commercials.

If you are still watching those ads, you know Meg is in attack mode. But her meat-cleaver approach does little to define her or her platform. And in her zeal to trash an opponent, the facts often get left behind.

Whitman's campaign ad, "Jerry Brown: A Legacy of Failure," is a case in point. According to FactCheck.Org. a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center:

The ad claims that "crime soared" while Brown was mayor of Oakland. That's false. The total number of crimes actually went down by more than 13 percent.

Also false is the ad's claim that Brown "damaged the school system so badly the state had to take it over." As mayor, Brown had almost no control over the school district, which was run instead by an elected school board.

The ad claims Brown worked to "send California jobs to China," but that's unproven. The claim rests on an 18-year-old newspaper story that Brown strongly denied.

Some of the ad's other claims lack context. For example, it's true as claimed that California had unemployment of 11 percent when Brown finished his time as the state's governor. But the ad fails to mention that the national unemployment rate was 10.8 percent at the time.

And what about Brown? Except for a few ads paid for by union interests, he remains largely silent so far, and it isn't a reflection of his Zen persona.

The fact is he doesn't have the money to maintain an indefinite media campaign. Instead, he'll wait until after Labor Day.

In the meantime, the Brown camp has started a website called Meg-a-Myths. Brown spokesman Sterling Clifford says it exists because "Whitman is either incapable or unwilling to tell the truth about Jerry Brown, California or herself. If she won't, we will."

Let us hope that we can dispense with the trash talking and hear real solutions for this state's massive problems. Let's hope that one of these candidates will rise to the occasion.

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