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Column: The California recall is fascinating — especially if you’re an East Coast TV anchor

Caitlyn Jenner
Caitlyn Jenner addresses a women’s event in 2020. Why is she running for governor?
(Associated Press)

Over the last few weeks, I’ve come to understand that Caitlyn Jenner is leading the field in the recall race to succeed Gavin Newsom as California governor, presumably due to her cogent grasp of the state’s important issues.

At least, that’s the impression I’ve gleaned from Jenner’s appearances on cable news programs, where she has been grilled by teams of anchorpersons.

On May 26 alone, she appeared on the set of “CBS This Morning” and the Fox News program “America’s Newsroom.” That followed a May 11 sit-down with CNN’s Dana Bash. And a one-on-one interview with Fox’s Sean Hannity on May 5.

I thought I was very qualified. Why? Because I am an outsider.

Caitlyn Jenner, on why she’s running for California governor

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Plainly, the East Coast media are becoming fascinated with the California recall election, and specifically with Jenner’s candidacy. CBS called Jenner “one of the highest-profile challengers” to Newsom in the recall, though it failed to point out the reason: Networks such as CBS have paid no attention to any other candidate.

Some context is useful here.

To begin with, almost all the fascination with the recall election seems to be taking place outside California’s borders. The state’s voters haven’t shown much enthusiasm for the recall at all.

A recent poll by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies co-sponsored by the L.A. Times found that only 36% of California registered voters would vote to recall Newsom, while 49% opposed removing him. Compared with the institute’s prior poll on the topic, released in February, the recall percentage was flat and opposition was rising.

Also, as Politico’s Carla Marinucci observes, Jenner to this day “hasn’t had a public appearance, press conference, major policy announcement or in-depth interview with any state political reporter.”

It’s not hard to figure out why. In-state political reporters would know enough to call Jenner out on her serial misstatements and misrepresentations about state politics and economics.

She knows it’s safer to rely on national TV interviewers’ ignorance and their tendency to take all interview subjects at the subjects’ own level of self-esteem.

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It’s possible that all this could change in the months between now and the recall vote, which hasn’t yet been scheduled. As the vote comes nearer, Californians might pay more attention.

A political misstep by Newsom could crater his standing, which is trending higher at the moment. Voters might blame him for wildfires and electricity outages in the next few months (though the state’s utilities are more inviting targets for their ire).

The gulf between outsiders’ and residents’ approach to California politics isn’t new. As a resident of California for the better part of four decades, I’ve been a voracious consumer of reportage about the state from outsiders. It’s not often that I’ve seen a piece that describes a place I recognize.

During the tenure of the only other California governor to win office through a recall, Arnold Schwarzenegger (2003-11), out-of-state political pundits continually lamented that Schwarzenegger’s foreign birth made him ineligible to run for president, which they assumed he would win handily.

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Never mind that these encomiums were heard while Schwarzenegger’s popularity in California was sinking — in a stinging defeat, all four of the ballot initiatives he had promoted lost in 2005 — and that his most notable gubernatorial action, canceling an increase in the car tax within hours of taking office, blew a $4-billion hole in the state budget that he was unable to fill, except through borrowing.

(To be fair, former Gov. Schwarzenegger has played an entirely laudable role in encouraging people to get vaccinated against COVID-19.)

It’s all too easy for out-of-state TV anchors and reporters to focus on celebritude and superficialities when dealing with California politics. The alternative is doing one’s homework, spending time in the state, educating oneself about the issues important to voters and separating realistic solutions from talking points and sloganeering.

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Political reporters, especially in the New York-Washington, D.C., axis, are trained to see everything as a personality contest, with no issue having a life of its own. One sees the same tendency in coverage of other complicated subjects, such as Social Security, Medicare or the Affordable Care Act — is there any wonder why the public’s understanding of these subjects is often so flawed?

Let’s see how that works in Jenner’s case. In her interviews on Fox, CBS and CNN, she’s received virtually no pushback for flagrant misstatements. On Fox, interviewers Bill Hemmer and Dana Perino nodded along when Jenner said that California was poised to lose a congressional seat as a result of the 2020 census because “so many people have left.”

Actually, no. Between the 2010 and 2020 censuses, California gained 2.2 million residents. It lost a seat simply because a few other states grew faster; since the number of House seats is fixed at 435, faster-growing states can gain seats from slower-growing states.

Hemmer observed that 70,000 residents have left the state in the last year, without noting that the figure, which applies to 2020, came to about 17 hundredths of a percent of California’s population of more than 40 million.

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A new survey concludes that California is most anti-business state, but it can’t explain why it’s also the fastest-growing.

Jenner asserted that taxes are crushing the spirit of Californians. For example, “We have the highest gas tax — over 50% of our gas is taxes, just for state” tax.

Let’s see. Combining the state gas tax, sales tax on gasoline, and fees including a charge for underground tanks and for marketing high-carbon fuel, California charges about $1.01 per gallon in taxes and fees.

The average price of a gallon during the recent holiday weekend was $4.20 for regular and $4.50 for premium, which places the levies at about 25%, not more than half. The Fox interviewers didn’t query Jenner on her claim, though as she spoke the program was displaying a background image placing the state’s taxes and fees on gas at only 62.47 cents per gallon.

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The interviewers sat silently by as Jenner asserted that Newsom has “destroyed the economy.” Never mind that the state’s economy has done better throughout most of Newsom’s tenure than those of Texas and Florida, the two states to which it is most often compared. Or that in April, California accounted for 38% of the nation’s new jobs.

She claimed to have talked to a CEO of a company that left the state, someone who complained that California is “not a friendly business environment.” As I’ve reported, this is a vacuous mantra that plays up the state’s avoidance of conservative nostrums such as deregulations and low taxes, but doesn’t explain why the state has been booming.

Over at CBS, the network deployed no fewer than three anchors and reporters to interview the candidate, but still failed to nail down her self-contradictions. Asked whether she was qualified to run the state, she replied, “I thought I was very qualified. Why? Because I am an outsider.”

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The insiders with political experience in Sacramento, she explained, “are the ones who are responsible” for California’s high tax rates and its homeless crisis.

Yet she also said that she would succeed as governor by surrounding herself in Sacramento with “all these people with political experience.”

None of these interviewers really tried to elicit specifics from Jenner about what she would do about the state’s manifest problems. How would she address homelessness, when voters reject ballot initiatives aimed at expanding the supply of affordable housing? What would she do about the drought and the incipient water crisis in the state? Who knows?

How would she pay for the recall itself, which, as my colleague John Myers reports, is estimated to cost $400 million?

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Why should we have it at all, since its ostensible rationale, which was Newsom’s handling of the pandemic, has disappeared with the state’s turning into a national success story in its battle against COVID-19 and its economy is poised to open nearly completely on June 15 — and given that Newsom will be up for reelection in November 2022?

Despite the unwillingness or inability of non-Californian interviewers to ask penetrating questions of a candidate for high office, Jenner’s TV appearances have been a sequence of train wrecks.

She illustrated the homeless crisis by telling Hannity about a resident with an aircraft hangar next to hers, explaining that he was leaving the state because he can’t stand seeing the homeless as he walks down the street. She told CNN’s Bash that she hadn’t bothered to vote for president or statewide ballot measures in November, choosing to spend election day playing golf instead.

Yet she still got invitations to appear on cable news shows.

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Make no mistake: Jenner has achieved what appears to be her goal in running in the recall. That’s to keep herself visible on TV in the void left by the expiration of her reality TV series.

The TV news programs get what they value too, attracting viewers by featuring a celebrity without turning them off by seriously discussing homelessness, taxes, economics and all those other subjects that sound boring but actually have influence on the quality of life.

The cable news programs don’t really care about the California recall, or they’d have the other challengers on for interviews. Those candidates include John Cox, who got slaughtered by Newsom in the 2018 gubernatorial election, 62% to 38%. But they’re a dull bunch, none of whom has anything like Jenner’s twinkle. So you can expect to see more of Jenner.

No one denies that California needs solutions to the social and economic potholes that lie ahead. It’s also evident that television news is in a bad way, if having Jenner on the air is the best they can do to cover the recall election. She and the news crews are all playing the same game, in the laziest and most inane manner possible.

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