California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman is representative of an emerging Republican type — what you might call the austerity caucus, writes columnist David Brooks. Sarah Palin get all the attention, but the governing soul of the GOP is to be found in statehouses occupied by militant budget balancers.
SILICON VALLEY, Calif. — If I had as much money as Meg Whitman, I’d probably have a more exuberant house. Hers is perfectly nice. But at a time when other Silicon Valley moguls were installing underground squash courts, arcade-size game rooms and other gewgaws, she stuck with a New England-style colonial. The furniture is traditional. There’s a middle-age Ford in the garage. There are definite signs of WASP parsimony and understatement here, especially compared with the $120 million she’s spent on her campaign to become California’s governor.
Whitman seems to have led a sober, performance-oriented life. She began her career at a string of traditional companies: Procter & Gamble, FTD florists and Hasbro. Then, in 1998, she took the leap to a ramshackle company called Auction Web, which became eBay. Even as annual revenues surged from $6 million to somewhere north of infinity, she could have won an award for Most Likely to Avoid Irrational Exuberance. She was the grown-up chief executive hired to look after financial discipline, management structure, customer analysis and other spheres of eat-your-veggies sensibleness.
She talks fast, begins too many sentences with “So ” and holds out her hands while counting off points on her fingers. Problems with the tax code? Four fingers pop up and four quick proposals follow. Problems with the State Legislature? Four fingers and four data points.
Whitman is representative of an emerging Republican type — what you might call the austerity caucus. Flamboyant performers like Sarah Palin get all the attention, but the governing soul of the party is to be found in statehouses where a loose confederation of uber-wonks have become militant budget balancers. Just as welfare reformers of the 1990s presaged compassionate conservatism, so the austerity brigades presage the national party’s next chapter.
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Mitch Daniels, the governor of Indiana who I think is most likely to win the GOP presidential nomination in 2012, is the spiritual leader. Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey is the rising star. Jeb Bush is the eminence. Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Rob Portman, a Senate candidate in Ohio, also fit the mold.
These are people who can happily spend hours in the budget weeds looking for efficiencies. They’re being assisted by budget experts from the Hoover Institution, the Manhattan Institute and freelancers like Bob Grady, who did budgeting in George H.W. Bush’s administration. Members of the caucus have a similar sense of the role history has assigned them. “This state had a party for 10 years and I’m the guy who got called in to clean up the mess,” Christie says.
Christie is the Hot New Thing in the group because he not only has ideas to cut deficits but he’s found a political strategy to enact them, even with a Democratic Legislature. One of the keys to cutting budgets, he says, is that “almost nothing can be sacrosanct.” Inheriting an $11 billion deficit, he spread cuts across every agency. He even had to cut education spending by $820 million but said any individual district could avoid cuts if the teachers there would be willing to chip in 1.5 percent of their salaries to help pay for health benefits (few districts took advantage of this).
Democrats fought the cuts but could not swing public opinion. The big showdown came over the “millionaires’ tax.” Democrats sought to raise revenue by taxing the affluent. Christie vetoed the tax, arguing that the state, already hem-orrhaging jobs, couldn’t afford to make the business climate any worse. He won that battle and has dominated the state since. He was elected with 49 percent of the vote in a three-way race, and now he has a 57 percent approval rating.
Whitman has brought Christie to California to campaign for her and says he offers a road map of where she’d like to go. It’s not clear that Whitman has as deft an enactment strategy as Christie does. It’s also not clear that Californians are as alarmed about their fiscal mess as people in New Jersey.
But Whitman has the personality type that you’re seeing more and more of these days. Not big picture, like Reagan. Not an idea volcano like Gingrich. Not a straightforward man of faith, like George W. Bush. The quintessential New Republican is detail-oriented, managerial, tough-minded, effective but a little dry. If Whitman wins her race, she’ll fit right in.
David Brooks is a regular columnist for The New York Times.