It was a cheap trick by Matt Lauer, a pander move for the celebrity anchor of NBC’s Today Show.
Lauer asked both gubernatorial candidates, Democrat Jerry Brown and Republican Meg Whitman, to pledge to remove their negative ads for the rest of the campaign, to the approval of the cheering crowd at the California Women’s Conference.
It was an unfair question, really, if you understand the reality of politics and the flow of this particular campaign. And it could be seen as an ambush on Whitman, who has run an exceptionally negative campaign and couldn’t be expected to relinquish the last hope she has, which is to somehow make Brown less appealing than her.
Brown got some flak initially when he said that negative ads are in the “eye of the beholder,” but he quickly rebounded by promising he would take off all his attack ads if Whitman responded in kind.
It was a stroke of genius. Brown did what he does best: he understood the audience and tapped into the predominent sentiment, putting Whitman on the defensive.
It was an easy play for Brown, who can afford to appear magnanimous with his expanding lead in the polls. But, he also knew that Whitman would never agree to such a deal. Even if Brown has all intentions of going for the jugular in the final days, he gave the impression he was ready to do the right thing.
“Let’s be clear,” Brown said. “If she takes her negative ads down … I’ll take mine off, no question. We’ll do it together.”
Whitman, on the other hand, was cornered into the very awkward moment she was hoping to draw Brown into.
Heading into the women’s conference, it was the Brown campaign that was worried stiff that Brown might slip up, pull off a faux pas or blunder into a gaffe. And Whitman’s team was hoping that she could make inroads with women voters. She started off with a soft and gauzy story about her mother’s influence (something about her volunteering for the Red Cross, going to New Guinea and telling her daughter about the consequences of “inaction when the need” is great, which sounds like it came out of a JFK flier circa 1960, and certainly doesn’t appear to have influenced Whitman on her voting habits in all those years).
It probably wasn’t going to make much of a difference, since Whitman otherwise reverted to talking points and subtle attack lines, drawing some groans from the audience.
But when Lauer’s question came, she flopped completely.
“Here’s what I’ll do,” she said. “I will take down any ads that could even remotely be construed as a personal attack. But I don’t think we can take down the ads that talk about where Governor Brown stands on the issues.”
Amid boos, she continued: “People need to know where I stand. And also Jerry Brown has been in politics for 40 years and there’s a long track record there. And I want to make sure that people really understand what’s going on here. And I’m not doing it in a mean-spirited way.”
Her exasperation showed right through her smile as she defended her ability to attack Brown on his record. And her discomfort was all too apparent when the groans and boos came from the crowd.
Brown’s team, sensing yet one more opportunity to exploit, quickly put out a last-minute fund-raising pitch with a short video capturing Whitman’s disastrous moment.
The Whitman campaign responded afterwards twice, in overdrive to show that Brown couldn’t possibly mean that he would end the negative attacks and that he truly is the cynical one in this campaign.
Sarah Pompei offered this lengthy comment initially, referring to a story I’d done in July foreshadowing Brown’s camapaign manager Steve Glazer’s vow to go after Whitman on character.
“Our campaign is going to continue to advertise Meg’s positive vision for California, while also running fair and truthful ads that highlight Jerry Brown’s long record on the issues. For more than six months, the Brown campaign and its allies in the public employee unions have been running a negative campaign against Meg Whitman. Most of their advertising attacks have focused on character assassination, avoiding any real discussion of the important issues that are of interest to Californians.
“In July, Jerry Brown’s campaign manager foreshadowed the strategy behind their attack-style campaign and declared a ‘war on character issues’. A declaration that came just months after Jerry Brown was videotaped behind closed doors making pleas to his special interest allies in Sacramento to ‘attack’ so he could be ‘the nice guy’. California’s voters deserve better.
“Jerry Brown can keep trying to fool the public that he’s ‘the nice guy’ but in reality he’s a cynical career politician running a cynical and negative campaign. The Brown campaign should pull its misleading character attacks on Meg Whitman and instead use its advertising to conduct an honest debate on the issues, something that has been missing from the Brown campaign for months.”
Later, Andrea Rivera, another Whitman spokeswoman, released a second statement:
“Just moments after Jerry Brown committed to taking down his negative advertisements, one of the 30 different special interest groups that are attacking Meg on Brown’s behalf launched a new attack. Jerry Brown has been running a hard-hitting character assault on California’s airwaves for months, and the idea that he and his union attack groups would stop now is absurd.”
But the Whitman responses miss the point. Whitman answered Lauer’s question as if she was the cynical politician intent on tearing down her opponent in order to win. Meanwhile, Brown, the lifelong pol who has had some eviscerating ads attacking Whitman’s character, appeared above the fray and ready to try a fresh approach to campaigning.
It was a skillful maneuver by the old pol, leaving the rookie challenger wondering what hit her.