Instead of offering specifics and honesty in their ads, Brown and Whitman tend to go for gut reactions.

By Cathleen Decker, Los Angeles Times

September 19, 2010

Politically speaking, last week was a week only Walt Disney could have loved.

Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman tussled for days over the truthfulness of Bill Clinton — something the rest of the country might have thought was settled in the 1990s — and ended up bickering over Brown’s characterization of Whitman as Pinocchio. (Complete, in a campaign ad, with lengthening nose and snappy hat digitally placed atop her head.)

The state they want to lead was falling deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole, like a doomed Alice in Wonderland. California made history last week of the wrong sort: On Thursday, the Legislature broke its record for failing to produce a state budget. Lawmakers did not mark the occasion by passing one.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger spent much of the week in Asia, where he tweeted regularly about his activities in the buoyant tones used by the perennially effervescent. “Selling California nuts in Seoul,” he reported on Tuesday, the 76th day without a state budget.

Californians already have astonishingly negative impressions of their political figures, so in one sense it was not clear if it was possible for the week to further dampen their spirits. But there was a plaintive quality to a question posed to Whitman on Wednesday at an event in San Francisco.

The questioner, a 24-year-old Democrat named Susan McKay, wanted to know why Whitman was continuing to air an ad whose anti-Brown premise — made by Clinton in a 1992 video — had been debunked as untrue. Then, she added:

“I think I speak for all of California when I say we don’t want politicians creating more problems without solutions or plans for the future.”

That might have been the most polite iteration this year of the voter anger that has swept the nation and has put Brown and other Democrats in the crosshairs, even in this plurality-Democratic state. But will it change things?

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All of last week’s political maneuverings, from the Bill Clinton dust-up to the barrage of ads being run by the candidates and assorted outside parties, centered on the big issue in this year’s race: who best to trust with the fractured economy?

Clinton came into the race when Whitman resurrected a contentious moment from the 1992 presidential contest, in which both Clinton and Brown were running. Brown spent much of that campaign baiting Clinton, and Clinton responded in a debate, citing a CNN report that said the tax rate rose over Brown’s two terms as governor.

The moment was meant to be a two-fer for Whitman: a Democrat still popular in California denigrating the current Democratic nominee for governor and undercutting Brown’s very rationale: I’ve been governor; I can do this job.

Brown brushed Whitman back by pointing out something that his campaign had neglected to make known in 1992: The CNN report was wrong. Taxes per $100 of income did not rise but fell during Brown’s gubernatorial tenure, from 1975 to ’83. (CNN had used an erroneous year.)

Whitman refused to scrub the ad, arguing that by another measure, Brown had raised taxes. At the same time, she reacted furiously to an ad by the California Teachers’ Assn. that claimed she intended to cut billions from education if elected governor.

Her campaign’s lawyer sent letters arguing that the ads were “demonstrably false” — legalese that echoed exactly what the Brown campaign was arguing about her ads against him. Brown’s counterattack on the Clinton ad and the CTA’s assertion that Whitman would cut education were meant to undercut Whitman’s desired image as a truth-telling non-politician who would protect what Californians want protected and ditch the rest.

Given the importance voters place on the economy and their permanent frustration with the budget, one might think that the candidates would be forwarding specifics aplenty about what they plan to do. They are not, for reasons that have to do with politics and human nature.

Politically speaking, only ideas with a high potential for popularity tend to surface in campaigns. Specifics tend to divide electorates; those who like the specifics stick around while those who don’t peel off. Reality is particularly hard to sell to California voters, who tend to want everything but don’t much want to pay for it. In their defense, it is almost impossible — for voters and politicians — to understand the vast complications of the state budget.

So rather than relying on 100-point proposals that play to voters’ brains, candidates appeal to their guts.

Take, for example, Whitman’s plan to move $1 billion now spent on welfare to higher education. Policy wonks can belabor the point that the cuts she has planned for welfare wouldn’t return that much money, or that they would result in huge cuts in matching funds from the federal government, meaning the state would be even deeper in the hole.

Voters hear something else entirely, according to Dan Mitchell, professor emeritus of management and public policy at UCLA.

“Maybe she’s just saying that ‘in terms of my values, social welfare programs are not my priority; that I skew more to the middle class and getting their kids into colleges,’ ” he said, describing a voter’s interpretation of Whitman’s plan.

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