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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Debate on Debates Continues

We’re at the point in this election cycle when final candidate debates are being held in many places, and although they don’t get the kind of national attention that presidential primary and general election debates obtain, they raise a lot of the same questions: Are they worth anything? Can they be made more substantive? Is anybody really paying attention?
There are no easy answers to these questions, as illustrated by two dramatically different takes on last night’s final debate between California gubernatorial candidates Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman. At the fine group site Calbuzz, which adopts a notably jaundiced viewpoint of Golden State politics and its practitioners, the debate was described as something of a high point in the campaign:

In a sharp, fast-paced and intelligent debate, managed expertly by former NBC newsman Tom Brokaw, Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown gave any voters still undecided about the governor’s race as clear a choice as they could want: a businesswoman focused on private sector jobs and a lifelong public official focused on untangling gridlock in government

That same debate was described rather bitterly by T.A. Frank in The New Republic:

The debate last night between California gubernatorial candidates Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown was pretty awful, but it could have been worse. Yes, the discussion was often superficial and disingenuous, but at least the word “whore” made several appearances. Tom Brokaw was there, too, and it was sort of nice to see him, even if no one had really missed him. The main challenge for viewers was to avoid getting too dispirited by the condition of California (that stubborn socioeconomic death spiral, for example) and instead try to focus on what matters. And those things would be the election-season setbacks and gaffes that–to use a favorite journalistic phrase–“threaten to overshadow” each candidate’s campaign.

Maybe the glass empty/glass full disparity in takes on the debate is attributable to very different expectations; it’s not as though the Calbuzz live-blogger was full of starry-eyed admiration for the candidates:

Tom [Brokaw] waaaayyyy up on Mt. Olympus – JFK’s inaugural address is cited — asks the candidates to tell voters what they – the voters – can do for California.
Meg immediately starts talking about herself. Straight campaign schtick and talking points. Doesn’t answer the question except to say that “What people will have to do is support the next governor,” “pull together” and “there’s going to be some shared sacrifice.”
Brown on talking points too: Can’t point fingers, “rise above the poisonous partisanship” rise above categories and be Californians first. “Some people say this is a failed state – it’s not.” He doesn’t answer either.

This sort of thing appears to drive T.A. Frank crazy, in no small part because the challenges facing the winner defy the sort of breezy can-do talk favored by both candidates:

[B]oth sides probably know that what awaits them in Sacramento is a nearly ungovernable mess. Whitman for some reason thinks that heading up eBay prepares you for this. It makes no sense, but it does appeal to voters dreaming of a new start. Brown, on the other hand, believes he understands Sacramento because he’s been there before. That’s true, but it’s not especially inspiring.

I guess the underlying issue is whether debates that occasionally succeed in luring candidates a few inches away from the focus-group-tested messages they proclaim in their campaign ads are worthwhile, or instead just create a cruel illusion, or worse yet, feature moments of “spontaneity” engineered by moderators firing off gotcha questions on nonsubstantive matters. It’s probably not a good sign that a debate between a candidate as relentlessly programmed as Whitman, and a candidate as endlessly unpredictable as Brown, came across to T.A. Frank as “vacuous.” The two pols are about as different as two members of the same species can get. Getting a useful contrast of their styles and views ought to be pretty easy. If the debates didn’t succeed in doing that, then we have to conclude that for all the trashing of partisanship that’s forever in the air, it’s a good thing there’s a D and an R next to their names to help us keep them clearly apart.

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