Meg Whitman’s Other Opponent: Arnold Schwarzenegger

Schwarzenegger pressured Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown to join him for an event last night she should have skipped. Joe Mathews on why the governator turned on his own party’s candidate to succeed him.

Schwarzenegger pressured Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown to join him for an event last night she should have skipped. Joe Mathews on why the governator turned on his own party’s candidate to succeed him. Plus, the Election Oracle puts Whitman's odds of winning at 40 percent.

Meg Whitman’s campaign for governor is trailing in the polls—and facing an immigrant problem. And that problem is not the former Whitman housekeeper who turned out to be in the country illegally.

No, this immigrant problem’s name is Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In the final weeks of the campaign here, Whitman, a Republican, finds herself tangling not only with her Democratic opponent, Jerry Brown, but also with the incumbent Schwarzenegger, a fellow Republican who should be her ally.

But Schwarzenegger has a taste for picking fights with other GOP politicians, and he appears to be indulging himself with Whitman.

The governor’s differences with the GOP nominee seem to be primarily about policy. Schwarzenegger has criticized Whitman for failing to support his landmark climate change legislation. And he raised questions about whether her promises to cut the state payroll were realistic.

But there’s been a personal edge to some of the criticism—an edge that’s noteworthy given that Schwarzenegger has a warm, personal relationship with Brown, who has provided advice and public support to Schwarzenegger during the governorship. During a recent dispute between Brown and Whitman over whether Whitman was compromising principle by exempting powerful law enforcement unions from some of her pension reforms, Schwarzenegger seemed to side with Brown in a Twitter message.

“It’s appalling when anyone sells out,” Schwarzenegger tweeted in response to a question about Whitman’s pension policies.

All of this creates headaches for the GOP gubernatorial nominee. She wants to avoid debates on the issues with Schwarzenegger, since she needs to hew to his centrist policies to win over independent voters who decide California elections. But at the same time, she needs to distance herself from a governor who is seen as ineffective because he failed to clean up his mess. Whitman’s tactic so far—to praise Schwarzenegger’s views and intentions while questioning whether his background as an actor made him ineffective—hasn’t worked. A popular ad from Jerry Brown mocks Whitman for sounding just like the Schwarzenegger who ran for office seven years ago.

Whitman is running out of time to figure out a way to manage Schwarzenegger. That became apparent Tuesday afternoon, when Schwarzenegger, Whitman and Brown made a joint appearance during the annual women’s conference staged in Long Beach by Schwarzenegger and his wife, Maria Shriver.

Shriver had convinced Brown and Whitman several weeks earlier to join Schwarzenegger for a panel discussion moderated by NBC “Today Show” host Matt Lauer. The fact that Brown and Whitman agreed—despite mutual reluctance—was a testament to the celebrity power of California’s First Couple and to Shriver’s personal reassurances that the questions would be softballs and that the encounter wouldn’t be a debate.

“I happened to disagree a little bit here with Meg about California is going to be a Golden State again,” he said.

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In retrospect, Whitman would have been wise to skip the session. Before a conference audience of 14,000 in the Long Beach Convention Center, Schwarzenegger slyly helped frame the conversation in a way that put Whitman on the defensive.

In an opening exchange with Lauer over his own record, Schwarzenegger turned the conversation to the nasty tone of the gubernatorial campaign and other political contests this year.

“People are sick and tired of politicians accusing each other of things and attacking each other, calling each other names and so on. It's a waste,” Schwarzenegger said. “I think it is much more attractive if candidates go out and talk about what is their vision of the future of California, how are they going to take what we have accomplished and build on this foundation? That is really the important thing.”

The politically unsophisticated Lauer saw this observation as profound, and he seized on the governor’s theme when Whitman and Brown joined them on stage. After a few TV-style softball questions about the families of Whitman and Brown, Lauer called the campaign a “bloodbath” of negative TV ads—and then asked both candidates to promise to remove negative ads from the air for the last week of the campaign. Brown quickly seized this opportunity. Since he leads in the polls against Whitman, a ban on negative ads would prevent him from attack and guarantee his victory. Brown declared he would remove his negative ads, to the cheers of the convention hall.

Lauer’s question, however, put Whitman in a box. She needs to attack Brown to win. So she was faced with a choice. Go along with the ban to curry favor with this crowd—and then run tough ads against Brown, drawing complaints that she had broken her word. Or refuse to go along and turn this crowd of thousands of women against her.

Sounding indecisive, Whitman hemmed and hawed about the different kinds of negative ads. As Whitman continued to squirm, Schwarzenegger, sitting just to her left, smiled broadly and laughed loudly. He seemed to be enjoying her pain. In a stage whisper to Whitman, Schwarzenegger suggested that her political advisers, including Mike Murphy, who had advised Schwarzenegger during the 2003 recall, must be nervous backstage.

“Mike Murphy is in the back,” Schwarzenegger told Whitman. “He’s shvitzing.” Whitman stuck to her guns and defended her ads as offering fair commentary on Brown’s record. The crowd jeered.

A point for Brown. But Schwarzenegger didn’t stop there. When Lauer finally sought to drop the topic, citing a lack of time, Schwarzenegger jumped in to say things were going well and that, since this was his conference, Lauer should feel free to go on longer.

Schwarzenegger concluded the session with praise for both candidates. But he was kinder to Brown. Schwarzenegger declared that Brown is a “great public servant” and had done “a great job as governor” between 1975 and 1983. Whitman has spent tens of millions of dollars on ads that argue otherwise.

Schwarzenegger couldn’t resist taking one last final swipe at Whitman after she said she was running for governor to make the “golden state great again.”

“I happened to disagree a little bit here with Meg about California is going to be a Golden State again,” he said. “California is a Golden State. California is a Golden State because we maybe are down—we maybe are down, but we're going to be back stronger than ever.”

It was demagogic, but the mostly female crowd of Shriver and Schwarzenegger fans roared their approval. The comment had turned the jeers for Whitman into cheers for Schwarzenegger.

Joe Mathews is a journalist, an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation, and a contributing writer at the Los Angeles Times. He is the author of The People's Machine: Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Rise of Blockbuster Democracy and co-author of the new book, California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix it.