Meg vs. Jerry: Can Two Very Different Candidates Both Be All Bad?


One-point-five cheers for Meg Whitman.

Reacting to my unkind words about Meg Whitman's platform, reader Jeff Muchmore, a grad student and recent California transplant, sends in a grim question:

[I]n simplistic terms, don't you think Brown would steer this state off a cliff much faster than Whitman? It's a grim question, but I can't imagine even from a libertarian perspective, which I share, that they are both equally bad. He's got to be worse.

I would separate personal philosophy from practical effects. Philosophically, it's hard to find worse than Jerry Brown, who will make us jog for the master race and always wear a happy face. Meg Whitman has been a huge disappointment – a figure out of the George H.W. Bush era in a year that has produced a slightly more interesting mix of Republican candidates in some parts of the country.  But throughout his career, Jerry Brown has been libertarian kryptonite.

Practical effect is a more interesting question. I don't see much evidence for the Nixon-in-China case made by David Crane (hero of an upcoming Reason TV show) and others—that Jerry Brown will get some union concessions that Meg Whitman couldn't. He is financially beholden to organized public employees, and there's nothing in his Oakland history, or his governorship during the era of dial phones, to indicate he'd do more than incremental compromises. But some people who know Sacramento make the case for him.

The first argument in Jerry's favor is that he has the credibility to get the unions to compromise, because he signed the Dills Act in 1977 – which allowed collective bargaining by state employees and paved the way for the current crisis. The second is that his Oakland experience alerted him to the way pension liabilities sucked up funds for his own programs. The third is that Jerry Brown is frugal: Despite the deathless "Gov. Moonbeam" knock, Brown has never been flaky so much as ascetic and pleasure-hating—very much in the Jimmy Carter mode. Witness his "Era of Limits" idea in the seventies.

So, maybe all that means he'd find ways to turn off the pension spigot. But that's taking a lot on faith. According to the Sac Bee, while he was governor Brown did veto pay raises twice and fire 3,000 employees at DOT. And he has forefronted his willingness to confront the unions during the campaign (while taking all their money and endorsements). But as attorney general, Brown spent the last four years ignoring criminal cases of benefits spiking in Bell and other towns around the state.

Furthermore, his experience as Mayor of Oakland does not suggest Brown had any big conversion on the pension issue. The OC Register's Brian Joseph digs up some details about old Oakland union contracts that give the lie to Brown's era-of-limits parsimony and makes him seem like just another incautious spender fooled by the age-of-abundance counterdelusion of the last decade. On the stump, Brown talks the pension issue better than Whitman does. But you're supposed to discover sobriety before the drunk-driving accident, not after.

Underlying the Nixon-in-China argument is respect for Jerry Brown's experience as a nuts-and-bolts government executive. In the first debate, Brown made the superficially compelling point that Whitman would follow in the footsteps of Arnold Schwarzenegger – a private sector success who underestimates how complicated and frustrating government can be.

But private sector experience – which Jerry Brown has never found much time for in his 72 years – comes in many shapes and sizes. There is a big difference between being a performer (who never even directed a movie) and being a tech executive.  Meg Whitman led a company involved in high volumes of money transactions, susceptible to every lawsuit imaginable and all lawsuits to be imagined in perpetuity and throughout the universe. During her tenure the economy experienced two recessions, one centered in the tech market, and California's business climate became steadily more hostile – with the lawsuit-happy Attorney General Jerry Brown doing his best to drive away business in recent years. Despite all those obstacles she successfully took the company public, saw revenues grow from $5.7 million in her first year to $7.6 billion in her last, and left eBay in excellent repair in 2008. (While Whitman detractors have used eBay founder Pierre Omidyar's non-endorsement against her, this had to do with Whitman's views on immigration and gay marriage, not her leadership skill — Omidyar made a point of saying she'd do a "great job" as governor.)

Does all that make Whitman the better candidate? Not necessarily – it's disturbing that on the public pension issue Whitman the entrepreneur can't even look more credible than Brown the union-funded son of a governor. But one thing you can definitely say for Meg Whitman: She could not be worse than Jerry Brown.