The Party of Celebrity

Once again it’s time to explain, again, that the masthead photo at the top of the page, which has been up there since early March 2007, is not just a sunset, it’s a political sunset. This is sunset on June 12, 2004, looking north from Mulholland Drive out back, on the day Ronald Reagan was finally laid to rest, far off in the distance in Simi Valley. The final light was good that day, and it was the end of an era. The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library is now out there in Simi Valley, near his gravesite, and one Republican politician after another flies out here to speak there each year, to show that they are the next Ronald Reagan, if they can – and in a few days, the second Republican debate of this election cycle will take place there. CNN is setting up already – they’re hosting this one and expecting big ratings. It will be Donald Trump against the world. Ben Carson will be modest and endearingly befuddled. Carly Fiorina will be blunt and professional. Jeb Bush will look uncomfortable. No one else will matter. Rick Perry dropped out already. Who is Scott Walker anyway? And all of them will be dancing on Ronald Reagan’s grave.

The Republican Party was buried out here. Republicans simply disappeared in California, the state that gave America both Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon. It may be that electing Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor was the last straw, but probably not. Ronald Reagan had been a second-rate actor too, but Reagan had done his homework. He had ideas about government – rather bad ideas as it turned out, but ideas nonetheless. Schwarzenegger had attitude, and attitude is not policy – but the party has made a mess of things long before he came along. Prop 13 made it so no one’s property taxes ever went up, until the pleasant little ranch house changed ownership. Never sell your house and you’ll be fine – and this decimated the tax base. State revenue then depended on state income taxes and the sales tax – highly volatile, as economic downturns meant no steady revenue and thus big cuts to everything. That happens when income disappears and no one’s buying anything. The schools and roads and social services fell apart.

That wasn’t a brilliant Republican idea, and then, in 1994, Pete Wilson managed to ram through a referendum that cut off even basic emergency services for immigrants, and the Hispanic vote was lost to the Republicans forever. What Pete Wilson did was intentionally mean-spirited, a way for angry and panicked white folks to register their contempt and spite. They did, and it went downhill from there. Republicans started playing with the rules, like requiring a solid two-thirds vote in the legislature to raise even the most minor of taxes, and a similar vote to pass a state budget. Most budgets never got passed on time and the state would end up paying it employees and vendors in script – the IOU thing. All the while the Republicans said no to all spending, and wanted to eliminate almost all taxes – so everyone would be free to keep their own money and spend it on what they wanted to spend it on.

Everyone was free, but the state had turned into a bit of a third-world country – shabby and falling apart. The voters had had enough. They voted in Democratic supermajorities in the legislature, so the Republicans could do no more than sputter and fume, and brought back Jerry Brown as governor again – a guy who actually knows a thing or two about policy. The state is finally in the black now, actually funding the schools and fixing the roads and repairing the damage from all the years of sweet freedom from intrusive big government doing things. It seems people wanted things done. They were willing to pay reasonable taxes for a reasonable place to live. Who knew? Everyone knew, except the Republicans. There are few of them left out here now.

California voters finally figured it out. Attitude isn’t governance, even if it’s that heroic attitude about total freedom and self-reliance and personal responsibility. Governance is governance – and it’s kind of nice to have schools and roads and bridges and social services. It makes life easier. That’s worth paying for, as are cops and firefighters, and some rudimentary public healthcare if only to keep nasty diseases from spreading, and regulation of some pretty deadly pollution, and food inspection too. Cheese shouldn’t kill you. Attitude, however heroic, isn’t worth dying for. You don’t get points for attitude out here.

Republicans don’t like to talk about what happened in California over the last several years. It’s embarrassing, but everyone else was talking about it, and in a long 2012 New York Times analysis of the situation, there was this paragraph:

“The institution of the California Republican Party, I would argue, has effectively collapsed,” said Steve Schmidt, a Republican consultant who was a senior adviser to Mr. Schwarzenegger. “It doesn’t do any of the things that a political party should do. It doesn’t register voters. It doesn’t recruit candidates. It doesn’t raise money. The Republican Party in the state institutionally has become a small ideological club that is basically in the business of hunting out heretics.”

That might describe the national party now, at times, with some seeing Donald Trump as the heretic and others seeing Jeb Bush as the heretic, but on the Sunday before the Simi Valley debate, the Los Angeles Times ran an item on what this sort of thing does to a political party:

Many Republican tears have been shed over the party’s inability to win over Latino voters in California. And many more have been shed over the party’s inability to win over the state’s Asian voters, at least in big ticket races. And now there’s another, more surprising reason for Republicans to fret. Are they losing white voters too?

Nationally, as well as in California, white voters – specifically, older white voters – have been the backbone of the Republican Party. That worked, as long as older white voters were the backbone of the state’s politics. Not so much anymore. Now, when it comes to voters, formerly homogenous California is an amalgam of races: 24% Latino, 9% Asian, 6% African American. More than 4 in 10 voters are non-white, according to a new USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll.

And of the white voters, fewer are Republican than in decades past…

Older white voters out here are fed up:

As white voters’ objections to illegal immigration have eased over the decades, more white voters here recoiled at the party’s stance. And there was more: Women felt alienated by a party that blocked workplace protections for them and campaigned against abortion rights and contraception. Young voters – white or otherwise – looked askance at GOP opposition to gay rights and later same-sex marriage. A state with religious affiliations that are lower than the national average bridled at the increasing evangelical dominance of the party.

“It has been a perfect storm over the years,” said Allan Hoffenblum, a former Republican strategist who runs the California Target Book, a nonpartisan compendium of state political races. And there is more than a slight chance that it could spread to other states as they work through similar demographic changes, he said: “This is something I’ve been warning about.”

And now this had come to a head:

The presidential campaign, which arrives here in earnest for Wednesday’s presidential debate in Simi Valley, has done little to bolster the party’s brand here, replete as it has been with fights over immigration, Planned Parenthood and same-sex marriage, the kinds of issues that alienated rising voters in the first place. The combination of a contentious and sharply conservative presidential campaign, and no countering brand definition by California Republicans, threatens more retrenchment, many Republicans say. …

There are the California Republicans struggling for notice… and then there are the loud and braying voices on the presidential campaign, reinforcing an image that many Republicans here would like to leave in the dust.

They know what killed the Republican Party out here. They’re not looking forward to the debate in the graveyard. They’ve had enough of this sort of thing:

Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina Saturday responded further to Donald Trump’s recent derisive comments about her appearance in response to a question about the businessman’s contributions to the level of discourse in the 2016 presidential race.

“I think Donald Trump is an entertainer. And I think I am a leader,” she told reporters after speaking to a crowd at the Strafford County BBQ & Beer Bash in Dover, New Hampshire. “What I do is talk to the American people about the issues that I care about and I think they hear what I’m talking about.”

She confirmed that she does not plan on asking Trump to apologize for his comments because “there’s a long line of people asking him to apologize.”

Trump was quoted mocking Fiorina in a new interview in Rolling Stone, saying, “Look at that face!? Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?!”

Trump later said he was only talking about her “persona” – and then he probably winked. So we have this:

She left it open how she would react if Trump decides to go after her in Wednesday’s debate. “We’ll see what happens,” she said. “You’ve seen how I’ve handled him so far.”

That would be this:

Carly Fiorina has a message for Donald Trump: Yes, “look at this face.”

The former Hewlett-Packard CEO kicked off her speech Friday night to the National Federation of Republican Women in Phoenix by offering a clear rebuttal of Trump’s recently quoted comments on her in which he criticized her looks.

“Ladies, look at this face,” Fiorina said, to strong applause. “This is the face of a 61-year-old woman. I am proud of every year and every wrinkle.”

Fiorina didn’t call out Trump by name on Friday night, but her remarks were tailored to the receptive, women-dominated crowd.

“Look at all of your faces,” Fiorina said, according to video posted online. “The face of leadership. The face of leadership in our party, the party of women’s suffrage. The face of leadership in your communities, in your businesses, in your places of work and worship… We are not a special interest group. We are the majority of the nation.”

What any of this has to do with being president is anyone’s guess, and there was only one response to that:

“She had tremendous – you could call it bad luck. You can call it – she did a bad job,” Trump told John Dickerson from CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday. “Hewlett-Packard was a disaster. Lucent, the company she was at before Hewlett-Packard, was a disaster. These were two disastrous reigns.”…

“I have some of the greatest assets in the world,” the real estate magnate-turned-politician said on Sunday. “I’m not saying that to brag, John. I’m just saying that’s the kind of mindset this country needs.”

Yeah, well, there’s the new Businessweek cover story on the mess that is Trump’s empire – but you could look up Fiorina’s record as Hewlett-Packard CEO:

Fiorina instituted three major changes to HP’s culture shortly after her arrival: a shift from nurturing employees to demanding financial performance, replacing profit sharing with bonuses awarded if the company met financial expectations, and a reduction in operating units from 83 to 4. …

Fiorina said to Congress in 2004: “There is no job that is America’s God-given right anymore. We have to compete for jobs as a nation.” While Fiorina argued that the only way to “protect U.S. high-tech jobs over the long haul was to become more competitive [in the United States],” her comments prompted “strong reactions” from some technology workers who argued that lower wages outside the United States encouraged the offshoring of American jobs. In the US, 30,000 HP employees were laid off during Fiorina’s tenure. In 2004, HP fell dramatically short of its predicted third-quarter earnings, and Fiorina fired three executives during a 5 AM telephone call.

Fiorina frequently clashed with HP’s board of directors, and she faced backlash among HP employees and the tech community for her leading role in the demise of HP’s egalitarian “The HP Way” work culture and guiding philosophy, which she felt hindered innovation. Because of changes to HP’s culture, and requests for voluntary pay cuts to prevent layoffs (subsequently followed by the largest layoffs in HP’s history), employee satisfaction surveys at HP – previously among the highest in America – revealed “widespread unhappiness” and distrust, and Fiorina was sometimes booed at company meetings and attacked on HP’s electronic bulletin board.

Still, the company’s revenues doubled, mostly because of mergers like the one with Compaq Computer, which didn’t really matter:

The company reportedly underperformed by a number of metrics: there were no gains in HP’s net income despite a 70% gain in net income of the S&P 500 over this period; the company’s debt rose from ~4.25 billion USD to ~6.75 billion USD; and stock price fell by 50%, exceeding declines in the S&P 500 Information Technology Sector index and the NASDAQ. In contrast, stock prices for IBM and Dell fell 27.5% and 3% respectively, during this time period.

The HP board had had enough in early 2005 and forced her to resign:

The company’s stock jumped on news of her departure, adding almost three billion dollars to the value of HP in a single day. Many employees celebrated her resignation.

And there’s the judgment of history:

Since her forced resignation, CBS News, USA Today and Portfolio.com have ranked Fiorina as one of the worst American (or tech) CEOs of all time. In 2008, InfoWorld grouped her with a list of products and ideas as flops, declaring her tenure as CEO of HP to be the sixth worst tech flop of all-time and characterizing her as the “anti-Steve Jobs” for reversing the goodwill of American engineers and alienating existing customers. According to an opinion piece by Robin Abcarian in the LA Times, Fiorina “upended HP’s famously collegial culture, killed off its beloved profit-sharing program and hung her own portrait between those of the company’s two sainted founders” before “flaming out in spectacular fashion”. Katie Benner of Bloomberg View described Fiorina’s leadership at HP as a “train wreck” and a “disaster”.

Shouldn’t any of that matter? A frequent commenter here, Rick in Atlanta, wonders about that:

The mystery remains as to how she’s still a serious contender for a major party’s nomination. I suspect it has something to do with whatever positive fame she enjoys being derived from her being named by Fortune Magazine as the most powerful woman in business, or her place in history as “the first woman to lead a Fortune 20 company”.

But think about this: If, instead, some man had taken her place at HP, and ended up with the same performance record, would he be running for president today? In fact, would we even know his name?

Maybe not, but this woman is not selling us her record of achievement. She’s selling us her attitude. Donald Trump has made a lot of money and lost a lot of money, starting out with a thirty-five million dollar trust fund as a teenager, so he’s not selling us his record of achievement. He started off ridiculously rich. He’s selling us his attitude, and he has clarified a few things:

Trump opened up an interview Thursday night by continuing to claim a recent remark about GOP rival Carly Fiorina’s was not a slam on her appearance. … “Some comments are made as an entertainer,” Trump said. “What can I say? I’m leading with the evangelicals, I’m leading with women.”

And some very successful people are famous for being famous. There’s nothing else there. Think of Paris Hilton. She too started off ridiculously rich. She too became famous for no more than her attitude – she has no talent for anything in particular – but that attitude led to her line of perfume and shoes and whatnot. Trump has his line of clothing and accessories. It’s the same sort of thing – but Paris Hilton isn’t running for president. Perhaps she should.

Johnathan Capehart explores this notion:

On July 30, 2008, Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, leveled a serious charge against Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential nominee. In an effort to bring him back to earth, the political shooting star was branded a “celebrity.” As vacuous and empty as then-reigning celebutantes Paris Hilton and Britney Spears.

Their faces were shown with Obama’s, but all that’s over now:

Today, the Republican Party is rallying around Donald Trump, an actual celebrity with no political experience – a megawatt Manhattan real-estate developer who slaps his name on everything and even hosted a reality television show called “The Celebrity Apprentice.” Before Trump reset the 15-minutes-of-fame clocks for the likes of Dennis Rodman, Gary Busey, LaToya Jackson and Lou Ferrigno, he was the face of “The Apprentice” from 2004 to 2008 that made celebrities of its winners, most notably Omarosa.

That McCain ad is here – it didn’t do much other than piss off Paris Hilton who totally mocked McCain in her own ad – because even she knew this celebrity thing was kind of a joke. Capehart, however, sees more:

The celebrity knock is as lame against Trump as it was against Obama. Being well known is an asset, especially in presidential politics. The problem comes in when political celebrity is not backed up by substance. And that problem is compounded when the person says things “as an entertainer.”

Sure, presidents can entertain. Just check out the White House Correspondents Association Dinner. But they can never be too flip or carefree. Their comments have consequences as they can move markets, start wars or kill legislation. They also speak to temperament, which Trump continues to show he lacks to sit in the Oval Office. His nasty comment about Fiorina’s face is in line with misogyny and bullying directed at Megyn Kelly and at Rosie O’Donnell. And these comments are just part of a litany of invective, much of it race-based, that Trump tosses with the glee of a drag queen flinging glitter at a pride parade.

But somehow that doesn’t matter:

Every Trump insult, no matter how low or “entertaining,” has resulted in increased support. “When you have a big reality TV star as the frontrunner for the Republican nomination,” Omarosa told me after the first GOP debate last month, “you have to deal with everything that comes with it.”

What comes with it is the idea that attitude is governance. Carly Fiorina drove Hewlett-Packard into the ground. So what? She’s got that attitude. As for Donald Trump, Kevin Drum sums it up:

Ask him about China, and he says he’ll send Carl Icahn over. Ask him how he’ll get Mexico to pay for a wall, and he says “management.” Ask him about taxes and he says he’ll be great for the middle class. Ask him for his favorite Bible verse and he claims that’s too personal to share. … He’ll hire good people. He’ll delegate. He’ll learn it when he needs to. He’s entirely up front about not knowing squat, and it’s barely even caused a ripple.

That’s because he’s a celebrity with attitude. So are Carly Fiorina and perhaps Ben Carson – which means that the only way to resolve this is to have three political parties. There’d be the traditional Republican Party, with conservatives advocating for conservative policies to make things better for everyone. Jeb Bush and Scott Walker and a few others would be running. There’d be the traditional Democratic Party, advocating liberal policies to make things better for everyone. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders do that. Then there’d be the Celebrity Party, offering no particular policies, just attitude from folks with no relevant experience – and they’d win every time. This is the week Ronald Reagan rolls over in his grave. He was never much of a celebrity.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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2 Responses to The Party of Celebrity

  1. Russell says:

    This says it all, Alan. This is your best. You can call it “A Eulogy for an Era” or “an Obituary for an Era” — that depends upon the age of the reader, I suppose. But you certainly have captured the essence an Era and it’s not pretty.

    Thanks for all the time you spend to make your writing worth reading every day.

    It is appreciated.

  2. Rick says:

    I’ve heard Fiorina explain away her business failures; she puts such a positive spin on everything as she talks on and on, with such a confident smile on her face, that by the end, you figure she must be right because, otherwise, how could she have kept talking for so long?

    But still, you come away with absolutely no memory of what she said.

    And I’m pretty sure you’d get the same thing from Trump, explaining away all his bankruptcies, if anybody could ever insert a question about them into that flurry of nonsense he always spews, except in his case, whenever he’s caught saying something that’s not true, he just writes it off as him “talking as an entertainer”. In fact, Trump writes off so much of everything he says that you’d think all his supporters would have figured out by now that you can’t trust anything he says.

    It’s amazing! Republicans can take one tiny thing that Obama says — like, “You didn’t build that! — then twist its meaning out of shape, outright lie about what he was saying, then run with it for months, despite their being told how they got it wrong — and get away with it! — and yet Donald Trump blurts out another of his bald-face insults, then denies once again that he meant it that way when he obviously did, and everyone gives him a pass!

    This reminds me of that Saturday Night Live skit back in 1988, with Bush Sr. (Dana Carvey) debating Dukakis (Jon Lovitz), and Diane Sawyer (Jan Hooks), as the moderator, trying desperately to convince Bush to use more of his time, even though he apparently has nothing much to say:

    Diane Sawyer: You still have a minute-twenty, Mr. Vice-President.
    George Bush: Well, more has to be done, sure. But the programs we have in place are doing the job, so let’s keep on track and stay the course.
    Diane Sawyer: You have fifty seconds left, Mr. Vice-President.
    George Bush: Let me sum up. On track, stay the course. Thousand points of light.
    Diane Sawyer: Governor Dukakis. Rebuttal?
    Michael Dukakis: I can’t believe I’m losing to this guy!

    And the scary thing is, he did.

    Rick

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