May 2, 2010

Five minutes into the GOP governor’s debate, Steve Poizner ripped into Meg Whitman on her ties to Goldman Sachs – charging that “a lot of people got damaged by Goldman Sachs and Meg Whitman’s right in the middle of it.”

“Meg Whitman has massive investments in Goldman Sachs, made huge amounts of money from the collapse of the housing market, and then, when it was time for Goldman Sachs to get bailed out by taxpayers, Meg Whitman actively campaigned for a taxpayer funded (bailout). The question is, did she let people know?”

It was the first of a series of aggressive and effective attacks on eMeg’s character and ideology that he landed against his front-running rival for the Republican nomination for governor in Sunday’s hour-long debate at San Jose’s Tech Museum, a solid performance that Calbuzz scored as a win for Poizner.

But solid as his victory was in the only televised debate of the contest, it fell short of the kind of dramatic game changer that the state Insurance Commissioner needs to overcome the former eBay CEO’s commanding lead five weeks before the June 8 primary.

It’s a plain fact that debates rarely change the basic dynamics of a major political race, especially one broadcast at 5 p.m. on a splendidly sunny Sunday in May; beyond this, and despite her feckless answers on Goldman Sachs and other in-your-face challenges, Whitman to her credit never wilted under Poizner’s withering fire, nor did she hand him a truly memorable moment suitable for a devastating TV ad – no lasting image of blunder, weakness or faltering faux pas.

With both of the contenders pandering shamelessly to the Tea Party wing of the GOP on issues from immigration to gun control, the core of the proceedings was Poizner’s line of attack on her personal integrity over her multiple connections to scandal-tainted Goldman Sachs.

As Whitman stood by glowering, arms tightly crossed in a defensive posture, Poizner bluntly assailed both her ethics and her judgment, particularly for accepting from the investment bank repeated IPO stock issues, then quickly “spinning” them to make quick and easy profits worth millions – a practice that was later made illegal.

“I did not do anything wrong,” Whitman insisted at one point. “It was a legal and standard practice. With 20-20 hindsight, would I do it again? No, because it was called into question.”

Poizner pounded at her answer:

Wow, you really don’t get this Meg…You were the CEO of eBay receiving investment banking services from Goldman Sachs, then you joined the Goldman Sachs board and their compensation committee, then Goldman Sachs started to feed you these sweetheart deals, not one, not two but 100 of them, and you made a fortune, a separate fortune from your eBay fortune and then until you got caught you didn’t think anything was wrong. But the fact is, Congress investigated what you did, they called it corrupt, the SEC investigated what you did and immediately declared what you did illegal, and the eBay shareholders investigated what you did and they sued you. They sued you for a huge conflict of interest and the only reason why you paid back any of this money is because you had to settle the lawsuit.

Not to put too fine a point on it.

Here’s a look at some of the other highlights of the debate:

Immigration: Just days after declaring his opposition to Arizona’s controversial new law aimed at illegal immigrants, Poizner announced that he now supports the measure, claiming that new amendments will prevent it from authorizing de facto racial profiling by law enforcement. He repeated the mantra of actions he has said he would take as governor against illegals – “turning off the magnets” of education and social services, cracking down on employers who employ undocumented workers and “sanctuary cities” in California, and using state resources to increases security at the Mexican border.

Poizner also charged that Whitman supports “amnesty” based on earlier comments she made about support for legislation that would offer illegals a path to citizenship. Whitman, who has said she misspoke in making those comments, was left to deny that she backs “amnesty,” but scored some points by pointing to Poizner’s conversion on the Arizona law as emblematic of his flip flops on other issues, from his days as a moderate Republican candidate for the Assembly to his current full-throated, red meat conservatism:

“This is a classic case of Steve Poizner changing his mind,” she said, noting that he is “an engineer…every election cycle he engineers a new position” to match the moment.

Tea Party – Asked if they considered themselves members of the Tea Party movement, the two fell over each other gushing about it. “Yes, I’ve been to a whole bunch of Tea Party events…I find myself really in synch with the Tea Party,” Poizner said, while eMeg chimed in, “I am a supporter…they are at their core fiscal conservatives…if the Tea Partiers and others are looking for the tough fiscal conservative in this race, I promise you it is me.”

Poizner’s record – Whitman was at her best in assailing Poizner’s political shape shifting, noting that he backed a 2004 ballot initiative to lower the Proposition 13 vote threshold on school bonds and opposed President Bush’s tax cuts, while also accusing him of increasing the budget in the Insurance Commissioner’s office. The latter charge led to an inconclusive exchange, as the rivals hurled conflicting newspaper reports on the issue: “You just do not know what you’re talking about,” Poizner snarled at Whitman, “They (the Sacramento Bee) called you a liar.”

Whitman’s record – Playing directly to the GOP right-wing, Poizner repeatedly hit eMeg for taking a cruise that was organized to examine the issue of global warming, and for having embraced the ideas of Van Jones, the left-wing green energy activist who was fired by the Obama White House after a series of his past radical statements were made public. He also blasted her for having supported Barbara Boxer’s re-election in 2004, ostensibly because Boxer opposed a new tax on internet services: “Because Barbara Boxer took a certain position on an Internet tax that would personally benefit her and her investment funds…Is that the way you make decisions about who to endorse?”

Right-wing pandering – Beyond their gushing comments about the Tea Party, both rushed to woo right-wingers on other issues. Both of them blasted California’s AB32 climate change laws, and refused to say that they believe global warming is caused by human activity, claiming the science is unclear on the question, and both also claimed to support “open carry” anti-gun control legislation.

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