The biggest loser in California elections wasn’t even on the ballot: Mitt Romney. Meg Whitman’s 12-point defeat in the race for California governor foretells what would happen if Republicans nominate the mirror image of Whitman for president in 2012.
Whitman’s loss undermines what is left of Romney’s appeal and deprives him of what would have been his most powerful supporter for the GOP nomination.
The fable of the businessman-turned-successful-government-executive is as old as it is illusory. The theory goes that someone who is successful at running a large corporation can run government like a business. This was the storyline behind Ross Perot’s failed 1992 bid for the White House, among countless other instances.
Often, the candidate involved spends most of the election talking about business experience and personality rather than specific policy matters or plans. The message: trust me to find a creative way to handle challenges as I did as CEO and let’s not dwell on the details of how to change government.
In California, this argument was the primary campaign rationale used by Meg Whitman, the former eBay CEO, who used approximately $140 million of her own money in the race. It was also the basis of Mitt Romney’s 2008 run.
Given Romney’s advocacy for the precursor of Obamacare when he was governor of Massachusetts, he will have little choice in the 2012 race but to divert attention to his pre-government business experience.
There are few instances where this model has worked in practice, as business is inherently different than government. Business executives can hire and fire people with relative ease. They can move resources to the most promising business areas with the stroke of pen. Government executives seldom have these luxuries, and voters know this.
Conservative voters have also come to sense that the CEO-turned-government-executive is the least likely to follow through with plans to restrain government or rein in lavish public employee benefits, such as those beginning to strangle California’s economy. The reason again is the difference between government and business.
CEOs contend with stockholders and boards of directors, but these typically supportive groups are poor preparation for dealing with adversarial legislative bodies or public-sector employees. Business managers also go to great lengths to avoid negative publicity or controversy, which are inevitable consequences of governing effectively or challenging the status quo.
It is worth noting that the governor who is presently most successful at confronting hostile public employee unions and big government spending is New Jersey’s Chris Christie. Notably, Christie does not come from the business world, but from the legal profession. He’s a fighter who grasps and can explain detailed policies to cut the reach of government. He is undaunted by controversy and cares little for media love. Among contenders at the federal level, Newt Gingrich comes the closest to Christie. Deep on substance and experienced at cutting government, they are the polar opposite of Whitman and Romney.
Ironically, the Whitman-Romney model was viewed by many pundits as the only way for a Republican to prevail in California, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 44 - 31 percent. Whitman rejected her primary opponent’s call for cutting one of America’s highest state income tax rates, and boasted of her non-politician credentials in a manner eerily similar to that used by outgoing Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger when he first ran in 2003. Her opponent’s campaign aptly exploited this in a commercial with identical side-by-side statements by Whitman and the highly unpopular Schwarzenegger.
It would be a mistake for conservatives to view the comprehensive Republican failure in California—Democrats won 7 of the 8 partisan statewide races with the attorney general race still undecided—as the inevitable decision of a hopelessly liberal electorate. On the contrary, in statewide initiatives, California voters largely opted for conservative outcomes. They rejected a new tax, created a supermajority threshold to enact user fees, kept pot-possession a non-misdemeanor criminal infraction, continued business tax relief, and saved an independent redistricting commission that was established by voters in the last election to end gerrymandering.
Most significantly of all, voters expanded the authority of that commission so that it now can draw districts not just for the legislature, but for the state’s 53 U.S. House seats as well. This does not portend well for establishment politicians in 2012.
Overall, the GOP’s electoral failure in California was caused by an inability to produce a post-big-government vision and translate it effectively to voters. While this is a tall order in a state with few effective conservative institutions, party organizations and media outlets, the biggest single inducement of failure was the nomination of a previously apolitical CEO to lead the GOP ticket.
Republicans can avoid repeating this mistake nationally in 2012 by forgoing Mr. Romney. The nominee will face a stronger opponent in President Obama than Whitman did in her race, and Romney would meet the same fate as Whitman.
And don’t write off the Golden State just yet. An expected end to gerrymandered districts next year plus the fact that liberal Democrats now own all of the problems big government created in California spells long-term opportunity for conservatives. But to win a fight, one needs a few unapologetic fighters.
Christian Whiton was a State Department senior advisor in the George W. Bush administration from 2003-2009. He is author of "Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War" (Potomac Books, 2013).