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Anyone looking for a clean kill in tonight’s gubernatorial debate between Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman probably walked away a little disappointed. If you were hoping for another Jan Brewer moment in which a candidate seems to simply and completely lose it on camera, again, disappointment reigns. But if you were looking for a reasonably thoughtful discussion of many of the real issues facing California, there was much to appreciate in the debate staged at the Mondavi Center at University of California, Davis.
Three local journalists – Amy Chance of the Sacramento Bee, Marianne Russ of Capital Public Radio and Kevin Riggs of KCRA Channel 3 – led the candidates through ten questions ranging from the broken California budget process to water policy and the death penalty.
Job creation, pension reform, immigration policy and higher education funding also had moments in the spotlight.
Whitman worked hard to stick to her talking points, sometimes to her detriment while Brown was clearly the more comfortable and relaxed candidate, joking with the crowd about his age and his legendary thriftiness.
When Whitman did attempt a little humor, saying that putting Jerry Brown in charge of negotiating pension reforms with labor unions was like putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank, it seemed forced and rehearsed.
Most Californians will not make up their minds based on who had the best one-liners. The overarching issues for most across the Golden State are jobs and the broken budget process.
Whitman’s responses here were focused and clear – get Californians back to work through a combination of targeted tax cuts, cutting business regulation and stronger economic development policies. Whitman hammered away at the state of the business environment in California, holding up Texas as a model for making the state more “business friendly.”
For Brown, those policies look more like a tax giveaway to the richest Californians, likely only to balloon an already enormous deficit and put further strain on state obligations to the most vulnerable.
Those looking for new or creative positions from the candidates were likely disappointed as well. That’s not surprising, however, because with a campaign in a virtual dead heat and this one of only two scheduled debates for the candidates, these appearances are about playing defense, not making a big gaffe, and giving your supporters a plausible explanation for why you won the debate.
The spinmeisters must have been pleased, because there was much that each candidate could say in defense of his and her claims to have won the debate.
For Whitman supporters, the story would be that she was the more focused and on-point advocate, repeatedly hanging the public employee unions and Brown’s own political legacy around his neck.
For the Brown supporters, the story would concentrate on how programmed Whitman seemed, in contrast to the affable Brown, ripping Whitman for her inexperience and her tax policies, leaving him as the only candidate likely to lead Californians out of the wilderness.
In the end, there was much to admire about this debate – a sufficient contrasting of positions and philosophies to help voters see the differences between the candidates, enough laugh lines to keep things interesting and a confirmation that maybe the choices we face in the ballot box are not as dreadful as we might have feared.
A second debate scheduled for October 12 will be moderated by Tom Brokaw. Stay tuned!
This and That around the Debate
–As a former debate coach, I would encourage Whitman to relax a bit more and show us she can work away from a script. I would put an arm around Brown and tell him not to let his humor and willingness to be a little goofy get in the way of pursuing his responses to Whitman’s pointed and legitimate questions.
–Congratulations to the panelists and the moderator, KCRA’s Gulstan Dart, who never, even once, made this debate about them. Let’s hope that Tom Brokaw can resist the same temptation.
–Best crowd moment: a tall, good looking young man wearing an “I Love Linda Ronstadt” T-shirt … even better, he explained that he had bought it on eBay.
–Who won the debate? If it was about exceeding expectations, I give Whitman a slight edge here. She was clearly prepared, kept focused and displayed a mastery of issues that may have surprised some. If it was about likability, it’s Brown by a wide margin. It’s hard not to like a guy who is at ease with his own image. Those who came to the debate with an image of the old Governor Moonbeam, however, may have thought his self-effacing goofiness was a little too much.
–Surprising statements: Brown talking about a 15-18 percent “reset” in state agency spending. Whitman saying that she supports raising the retirement age for state workers from 55 to 65 and the end of defined benefit pensions for new state workers.
–Old and lame: Whitman attempting to play the Rose Bird card in an answer to speeding up death penalty proceedings. Brown saying that Whitman is just taking a page out of the Bush playbook.
–Still troubling: Whitman spends so much time and energy demonizing state workers and public employee unions. These are the people who patrol our streets, fight our fires, take out the trash and care for the disabled in their homes. Are these people really the reason the state of California is in such a terrible mess?
–Still troubling: While Whitman has no record of leadership in public service, Brown’s record can be a liability as much as it can be a strength.
Prof. Burnett teaches classes in freedom of speech, argumentation and debate, journalism in times of war and peace, and political communication.
Photo Credit: Ron Nabity, Nabity Photos. More photos of the debate available here.
Photos #1 & 2: Republican candidate Meg Whitman addresses the media after the Gubernatorial Debate on Tuesday evening at the Mondavi Center. Whitman briefly answered three questions before leaving.
Photo #3: Democratic candidate Jerry Brown walks with the media after the Gubernatorial Debate on Tuesday evening at the Mondavi Center. Brown appeared outside briefly before returning to the inside of the building.
Photo #4: Gubernatorial Debate ticketholders lined up early to enter the Mondavi Center at UCD on Tuesday afternoon.
Photo #5: Debbie Mazzanti, left, from Vacaville engages in a shouting match with Meg Whitman supporters outside the Mondavi Center prior to Tuesday's Gubernatorial Debate.
Photos #6 & 7: Supporters for Brown and Whitman engaged in chanting wars and sign-waving outside the Mondavi Center.