Folks who’ve been paying attention to the Republican Senate primary in California this year might have noticed something unusual: in a “nationalized” election cycle, a fair bit of the debate in a federal election has been devoted to state issues, including the Golden State’s legendarily troubled budget situation.

Much of that debate has been driven by Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett Packard CEO, whose primary opponents, Chuck DeVore and Tom Campbell, have each served in state government. It’s a classic “outsider’s” gambit: bash your competitors for the unpopular things that happened on their watch, and take advantage of the fact that you haven’t had to deal with those problems.

The logical move from the press, of course, is to ask: Okay, what would you do differently? And in a good post Thursday at The Sacramento Bee’s “Capitol Alert” blog, Kevin Yamamura shows how it’s done:

Given her focus on the state budget in her attacks, we thought it would be fair to ask for her solution to the state’s $19.1 billion deficit.

“I’d start cutting spending, getting after waste, and I would cut taxes and cut regulation so we could grow the economy and attract some jobs back here,” Fiorina said after speaking Wednesday to the Tea Party Patriots of El Dorado Hills. “What we have in California is exactly what’s going on in Greece.”

Hmm, where have we seen that analogy before? Anyway, this is boilerplate, as the reporter noted:

We then asked for some specific reductions—and whether she supports Schwarzenegger’s budget proposal to eliminate welfare-to-work in California, the cut that has received the most attention so far in the budget dispute. It’s also a program that draws $3.7 billion in federal funds, and Fiorina had criticized incumbent Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer in her speech because she said California received less in federal matching dollars under Boxer’s watch.

She hesitated and started to answer, but then a Tea Party attendee jumped in and said,

“Why do you (reporters) always go for welfare first? There’s so many other things.”

Fiorina seemed thrilled by the interjection. “Exactly! Thank you. What he said,” she responded, laughing.

That’s rough treatment, and the “seemed thrilled” is a bit gratuitous, as reportorial mind-reading usually is. But the point—that Fiorina does not seem to have fully articulated views on a subject that she has put at the forefront of her campaign—is important. Later in the exchange comes this:

Then came the oft-used line about too much waste in government.

“Go after all the waste in Sacramento, have you walked through the halls in Sacramento?” she said. “There’s tons of waste. There are a million places we can go. But you have to have the appetite to go there. And the truth is that most politicians don’t have the guts to go say, you know what, we could be spending taxpayers’ money better.”

We asked, one more time, what she thought about Schwarzenegger’s budget proposal on welfare.

“Gov. Schwarzenegger and I have a very different view right now of what it takes to get this state going again,” she said. “So, in the real world, what you do is something called zero-based budgeting. … It is the easiest thing in the world to say, ‘Oh my god, the only thing we can do is cut welfare.’ Well, guess what, no one has spent any energy going line by line, dollar by dollar and department by department. And yet it is demanded in the real world every day.”

The “tons of waste” line is a favorite of politicians of every stripe, but it’s just not true. Most government expenditures, state or federal, are dedicated to things that people—some people, anyway—want money spent on. It may be wise to reduce that spending, but doing so represents a choice. Voters should know whether politicians are prepared to confront that choice honestly, and what principles they’ll be guided by. Good for the Bee for pressing Fiorina.


Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.