Interview with Tom Campbell, CA-GOV candidate

I spoke with Tom Campbell for over 45 minutes on a range of topics, and I’ve split my posts on that discussion into two posts, one here and one over at QandO. Here at The Next Right, I’m going to cover new media, elections, and the politics of enacting fiscal-conservative governance for a state like California. Over at QandO the topics have more to do with policy.

Tom Campbell isn’t your typical candidate.

Pitted against two Republican candidates with far less experience but much greater personal wealth, he’s opted to reach out directly to voters with new media, doing substantial blogging himself and even personally answering hundreds of questions about the gritty details of policy in the comment sections of his campaign website.

Going against the grain, he’s pushed to be far more specific about necessary painful budget cuts than his fellow Republicans. Still he appeals to demographics that have tilted Democrat – Northern Californians and young people – giving him a polling advantage over his fellow Republicans in a general election matchup.

Campbell isn’t some upstart: he has extensive experience in politics and government, having been elected to Congress five times starting in the late ’80s and having ran against Dianne Feinstein in 2000. He seems to be a contender in the race. So I was interested to hear his take on how things have changed and how he might translate electoral victory into governing power.

HOW ELECTIONS HAVE CHANGED

Campbell says that campaigning now is “immensely different” than it was just a decade ago. He gives praise to Mindy Finn and The Next Right’s own Patrick Ruffini, his new media advisors from the beginning of his campaign who are responsible for his website, Campbell.org.

We’re partners, and what I do is I provide the content. And I do a substantial amount of blogging, responding to individual questions as well. We post responses, and I hope you and your fellows [at The Next Right] take a look at what’s up there. It’s all my doing: my words, my responding to the questions. I spend a lot of time doing that, and the difference is that people know it’s me, it’s genuine, and I can make a mistake—and have, a hundred times—I’ll notice it, and change, and tell people that.

The new media is a two-way communication. The old media, which I have to say was the model when I was first elected in 1988, was unidirectional. I’d send out a piece of United States mail and hope that you read it before you threw it out. That was the media; that was it, one-way. I didn’t have a means of communicating the other way, listening to what the voters were saying.

His opponents, taking advantage of their deeper pockets, will have an advantage in expensive broadcast media. He doesn’t begrudge his opponents their fortunes or think it’s unfair that they can bankroll their campaigns. “That’s fine. I know the system and I’m trying my best to compete within it. But I think the big reason I can win is the new media.”

His opponents’ advantage on television, Campbell notes, is going to be curtailed by the fact that so many viewers now have TiVo and will be skipping commercials, but he acknowledges that with all the traffic in California, radio is going to be a preferred medium for his opponents. Still, it’s packaged one-way communication: “they won’t be able to test them in any way.”

Campbell himself also runs a hybrid of broadcast and two-way communication: the tele-townhall meeting:

And one last thing I’d emphasize is, it’s not simply new media, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, the blogs, the email that I do do myself, but also, we affirmatively call people and invite them to a live townhall meeting. So we’ll call as many as 25,000 people in an evening, and if they push 1 on their phone, they get brought into a town hall meeting with me, in person, live, and for the next 90 minutes I’ll answer any questions that come.

That is hugely different. You could have never done that technologically 20 years ago when I started in politics. And people know it’s genuine, and every question is fair game.

When I asked about the effort required to run a campaign with such a personal touch, he says,

It’s well worth it. It does require a lot of effort. That’s how I spend my days. I’m a professor, and so I’m privileged to teach class, but every other available minute seems to be focused on getting to respond through the blogs and the postings and the personal responses. I do put my heart, soul, mind and time into it.

I asked just what that online effort yields in terms of fundraising. He says that almost all of his funds are raised online, and observes how the funding barriers have dropped accordingly:

That’s the only way I have [raised significant money], has been folks who go to the web and they like what they see and they want to help me, and then there’s a means to contribute on that same website, Campbell.org. So my ability to raise funds is almost entirely that way.

And what I’ve found so far is that I’m able to raise enough. I’m not able to equal the net worth of my two Republican colleagues, and I never will, but you don’t have to; you have to raise enough to keep the Internet presence positive and up-to-date enough, to do the tele-townhall meetings that I spoke about, and to maintain a campaign schedule where the free media—the news media bloggers as well as the more traditional free media—cover you. And that is a much, much more achievable goal.

He notes how in recent history, Creigh Deeds, leveraging new media to the hilt, defeated the much better-funded McAuliffe in the Virginia gubernatorial primary. He didn’t comment on the general election, where Deeds went on to be crushed by Bob McDonnell, who also had Ruffini and Finn’s help.

HOW CALIFORNIA HAS CHANGED

Campaigning isn’t the only thing that’s changed since 2000, when Campbell last ran for statewide office. I asked him what had changed in California since then that made his message resonate more now, and he was unequivocal:

I think the economy has caused every thoughtful voter to focus on the fiscal issues, and that really wasn’t the case in 2000. The market was still quite high, people were looking at expanding businesses, unemployment was low.

We then got the Dot.Com crash and of course there was the subsequent recession. But in 2000 it was very, very different – the feeling was jobs for everybody, low unemployment and real growth taken for granted. And we learned that it was not to be taken for granted.

That’s benefited me as well in the Republican primary, because the focus on social issues oftentimes divides Republicans, but those don’t come to the fore when the economy is so bad. People are focusing on the issues that unite Republicans, not that divide Republicans.

That’s convenient at a time when the California GOP needs to find some way to reach out to groups that normally can’t bring themselves to vote for a Republican. Polling shows that Campbell, despite being such a strident fiscal hawk, appeals to groups that don’t identify as Republican much these days.

A TIME FOR LIBERTARIANISM?

That appeal, he explained to me, arose from him being:

Socially moderate, socially in favor of more freedom, and fiscally conservative. That’s the combination that accurately describes me. I don’t have to change any views; that’s what I’ve always been in public life and five terms in Congress. And that’s where I think most of the people of California are.

Interestingly, for example, in the 102nd Congress, I was rated the single least willing to spend money. Out of 435, I was 435, by the National Taxpayer Union Foundation. And there’s Democrats and Republicans, libertarians and other independents who are worried about the size of government.

But many of the more socially liberal run from the Republican label because of the more socially conservative views of at least the party standard-bearers. But I point out to them, I’ve also been consistently pro-choice, and I don’t care—the government shouldn’t care, and I don’t think the government should make distinctions on whether somebody’s gay or straight.

And some of those demographics you described—younger people, Northern California people—say “My gosh, this is a Republican I can vote for on the fiscal matters because he’s not going to turn me off on the social matters.”

That’s not to say that Campbell urges other Republicans to adopt his beliefs if they don’t hold them. But he expects the CA GOP will be transformed soon by new circumstances. He repeated,

It’s absolutely fundamental to be who you are and not try to change who you are when you run for office. And if folks are more socially conservative, that’s where they are, then that’s how they should present themselves.

It is not, however, where a majority of Californians are, so the saving grace for the Republican Party is going to be when we end gerrymandered districts. And that’s going to happen after the 2010 Census. So it’s already passed, we passed a change in our constitution so there’ll be a neutral body drawing lines. Then, to compete for a neutral district, not a safe Democratic or a safe Republican district, you will see a rise of the moderate wing of the Republican Party and a less pro-labor wing of the Democratic Party.

So it will happen on the natural. Individual candidates who fit that description will be elected in districts that are fairly drawn, who are presently not elected in districts that are gerrymandered.

The fact that social and fiscal conservatism don’t overlap too neatly in California today may make that kind of libertarian approach a necessary concession for across-the-board conservatives (and liberals) in a state like California. If Campbell is correct, that would have some intriguing implications in national politics, particularly if it applies to other states as well.

That makes it particularly interesting just how far Campbell has been able to take his fiscal conservatism.

SPECIFIC CAMPAIGN PROMISES

Campbell has embraced a tactic that the conventional wisdom says is politically costly: he’s been extremely specific about exactly what spending he wants to cut, laying out a detailed plan on his website that puts particular items in the crosshairs. I asked him why he took such an uncommon approach, and he had several reasons.

It’s the only way, I think, of being honest with the voters. If you don’t give the detail, then they’re essentially voting on optimism or some superficial characteristic.

Second, I think it’s a comparative advantage, so a tactical point in a campaign, given that I’ve had the benefit of a lot of experience with these programs as a congressman, as a state senator, as finance director of the state of California, and as a member of the Reagan administration. I can draw upon those details in a way that no other candidate can.

[…]

And I’ll say so far that it appears to be working. The desire that I have to be specific stems from how I feel the voters deserve to be treated, to be given specifics instead of very, very general statements. But it appears to have been a good tactical move as well. [According to recent polling,] I do better against the Democrats than either of my Republican colleagues.

He also remarked that the Democrat candidates, former Governor Jerry Brown and (until he withdrew) Mayor of San Francisco Gavin Newsom, had been able to “speak to state and local government, so I think a Republican candidate ought to be able to speak with detail as well.”

Having seen his debate with Steve Poizner at Brandman University, I recalled that Poizner had argued that specificity was important for leverage with the Democrat-dominated legislature. Campbell, whose proposals are pointedly more specific, agreed:

It’s true. There’s two things that you can do, even if you’re in the minority, that a governor can do: one is the line-item veto, and the second is the appointees you make to boards and commissions. If you are able to put your people in—you would be—to the boards and commissions, they can actually apply cost-benefit analysis to any new regulations, to make sure that we don’t continue to add any new regulations without a sunset [...] so that you don’t have ancient regulations affecting business and individuals in the current system.

But if you have a mandate from the electorate for something very specific, like I’ve tried to put out on my website, on where we need to go in sizing down the government, then you can point to it and influence the legislature on substantive laws in addition to simply using the line-item veto.

FOCUS TO WIN ON POLICY

I asked Campbell how, aside from a mandate, he could rally support to enact his agenda in a state where the legislature is dominated by Democrats. His answer is that you have to focus on one simple, clear idea.

You’ve got to get the support around the most difficult concept in government, and that is that you cannot promise everything to everybody. And I say—I think a tough economic time has taught that lesson to people, so I’d be coming into office at a time when people would understand that naturally.

But the fundamental approach, the number one, the most important goal, is to not spend more than we have. Let the debate take full force as to how we spend the money, but that we don’t spend more than we have. And that, I believe, Democrats, Republicans, independents are going to be supportive.

The key is to keep it simple. One clear idea, and ask people if they agree. And if they do, then the battle is won. You can actually go to individual assembly and state senate districts and point out how much spending the individual has done over and above the resources available, and the governor doing that is a devastating fact to contend with if you’re the incumbent assembly member or state senator.

But if you have a dozen ideas, or twenty, or thirty, and you’re popping different issues all the time, I don’t think you then are going to get the focus needed within any particular district adequate to overcome the natural inclination of, “Well, I’ll elect Joe over here because Joe will get more for me. Joe will increase this aspect of government or this aspect of financial behavior that benefits me.”

And that’s the default, isn’t it? That’s what happens in government, and then we spend more than we have, and people ask the federal government to inflate, which they will, or print money, which leads to inflation, and that the state government to borrow money intended and appropriated for other purposes.

So the key is to focus on one thing, and in my case it happens to be the fundamental principle, Don’t spend more than you have.

When I asked whether that focused approach would allow him to address all the related issues that need to be simultaneously tackled in order to bring California back from the brink, with all the powerful interests he’d have to face on those many fronts, he said he thought it could be done, though it’s “a very tough situation.”

If I make the fiscal responsibility my fundamental focus, there is a variety of approaches to any given social problem, but the one that comes naturally to the forefront then is the one that costs less, that relies more on the private sector, that doesn’t have a government solution.

[…]

So my policy preference is, in virtually every other area, is for smaller government and more use of the market, and that follows naturally when you are constraining the overall size of government by keeping them from spending more than they have.

And, as I recount over at QandO, he makes a strategic point that fiscal conservatives must push for spending cuts first, with politically easier tax cuts to follow later, when the state can incur them without being crushed under a deficit crisis.

For more on his reasoning on that issue and other specific policies, click here to head to QandO for the rest of my discussion with Campbell.

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