SACRAMENTO — Known for battling carbon emissions, Californians are dealing with an environmental degradation of another kind this spring: pollution of the airwaves.
Wave after wave of high octane, negative political advertisements have crowded out any hope of thoughtful discourse in the Republican gubernatorial primary, the outgrowth of an unprecedented $100 million poured into a tightly contested campaign by two wealthy masters of the Silicon Valley universe: Meg Whitman, billionaire ex-chief executive of eBay, and multimillionaire Steve Poizner, the state's insurance commissioner.
"The more money you have, the more poison you can buy," said Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College.
In one TV ad, aired by Poizner, a vulture picks at a carcass, a reference to Whitman's investment in Goldman Sachs vulture funds, so-called because they invest in financially distressed companies. In another, aired by Whitman, Poizner is accused of supporting partial-birth abortion.
The vitriol began a couple months ago but intensified during the last month when voters started tuning in and polls tightened. There are no signs of a letup with a little more than two weeks to go before the June 8 primary and one-third of the voters still undecided.
"Some people have a hard time judging Whitman and Poizner on economic issues, so it comes down to how they stand on social issues," said David Binder, a Democratic pollster.
Jerry Brown, the state attorney general and former governor who's running unopposed in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, even tried to cash in on the ugliness late last week, calling the two GOP candidates "apostles of darkness" and warning that the same "pablum" will probably fill the airwaves in the summer and fall. He later vowed to avoid "mudslinging" when the general election campaign gets under way, to the general skepticism of critics and observers.
Hard right turn
The path to the muck seemed inevitable with so much cash in the pipeline, especially after Whitman had built a lead by as much as 50 percentage points by mid-March. Poizner had to make up ground quickly, having waited until he felt he had the voters' attention.
He did so with withering attacks, starting with an assault on Whitman's 2004 endorsement of U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, heresy to conservatives. But his campaign took off when he took a hard right turn on the issue of immigration — embracing Arizona's controversial illegal immigration law and pummeling Whitman for not being sufficiently vigilant on an issue that has inflamed the party's right wing. In an apparent appeal to the evangelical wing of the conservative right, Poizner even accused Whitman of trafficking in pornography in an ad titled "Adults Only."
eBay cleaned up its site after Whitman took over as CEO, a woman's voice says over an image of Whitman in the Poizner ad. "No more guns, no more fake paintings. But pornography? Whitman started a separate division that only sells porn. Under Whitman's leadership, the porn site has become one of the largest on the Internet. From Goldman Sachs to porn, it's all about the money."
Whitman largely ignored Poizner while building her gaping lead, but lately has had to fend off his comeback with a fusillade of her own attacks. She's accused him of supporting partial birth abortions and taxpayer funded abortions, tax increases, dismantling Proposition 13, of being too pro-environment and of contributing to Al Gore.
Lack of substance
Meanwhile, observers are lamenting the lack of substance coming from either campaign.
"It's difficult to have a substantive discussion about how you reform Sacramento on 30-second TV ads," said Joseph Tuman, a San Francisco State professor who specializes in political communications. "So, they're waging classic pathos arguments. They're not designed to make you think, they're designed to make you feel."
Both Republicans have lined the walls of their campaign with glossy ideas — across the board tax cuts, eliminating 40,000 state workers, creating a grand jury to ferret out waste and abuse. But Whitman, Poizner and Brown are avoiding ideas that would have a powerful impact on the status quo — cutting pension benefits and raising certain taxes after having cut $60 billion in spending over the last two years — said Stephen Levy, director and senior economist at the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy in Palo Alto.
Taking the same three-pronged approach as Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain, the countries known as PIGS, would put California on a path to long-term growth, Levy said. Actually, it would be easier for California to dig out of its $19.1 billion deficit because that represents only 1 percent of the state's total annual income, compared to the 12 percent hole countries such as Greece are facing.
"It would be very hard for a Republican candidate to say PIGS got it right, that tax increase are needed," Levy said. "And it's difficult for Democratic candidates to say they have it right on pensions, as long as you're talking about new hires. Politically it's difficult, but it's not arithmetically difficult."
It would be nice, said Pitney, if you could force the candidates into a room with the camera rolling and make them give honest answers to what programs they would cut and taxes they'd raise.
"Unfortunately, that would be like waterboarding," Pitney said. "Nobody wants to go first in the hard choices department because it exposes you to attacks from the other side. So, you end up with no mandate for difficult choices."
Contact Steven Harmon at 916-441-2101.