Politics & Policy

Debating The Debate

Assessments.

LOS ANGELES–The League of Women Voters is a familiar political-debate sponsor. Its seemingly moderate president moderates. And there are always the inevitably fair questions: Where do you stand on a woman’s right to choose? Do you support gun control to protect children against drive-by shootings? Typically, public TV and public radio stations carry the boring debate; the ratings are low. Most voters judge the debate only by news clips and sound bites.

#ad#Last night’s debate was different. The California Association of Broadcasters sponsored it. Its president, Stan Statham, is a former state assemblyman. (Fortunately, Statham didn’t ask about his own proposal to divide California into three states.) The pedantic moderator provided the candidates with questions in advance. The idea was to allow for a more-thoughtful discussion come debate night. But did they really need to prep themselves to answer such easy questions ahead of time? Each candidate merely honed a sound bite. Inevitably, the resulting unstructured discussion became personal. The lead-in for the 11 P.M. news: “The candidates were nasty tonight. Details ahead.” That sort of talk helps Gray Davis. Indeed, the main clips featured Arianna and Arnold interrupting each other.

The upside of the format was that candidates could interrupt their opponents. So why did Tom McClintock hold back? This was his chance to politely ask Arnold unexpected policy questions. For example, McClintock opposed driver’s licenses for illegal aliens because they undermine immigration law. But Arnold opposed them because he said they lacked safeguards. McClintock needed to close that loop: Arnold does not oppose these licenses in principle.

Arnold Schwarzenegger had called last night’s debate the Super Bowl of debates. He had raised both expectations and the audience. But his handlers had tried to lower expectations. They suggested that an inexperienced Arnold was facing political superstars. Did voters really expect much from him? Probably not. In fact, Schwarzenegger made no major mistakes. He was adequate. That likely did the job.

But Arnold faces a problem of his own making. He declared his candidacy without a campaign. His first campaign appearances were disastrous. During the following weeks, he granted more interviews, provided more specifics. But many voters cannot be disabused of their first impression of him. That probably $8 million in TV ads have starred the candidate himself hasn’t helped people forget, either.

The reason Arnold has stalled is not Tom McClintock. It’s Arnold’s campaign.

But Arnold Schwarzenegger may yet become governor of California. Bustamante came across Wednesday night as timid and weak. In contrast, Arnold seemed like a take-charge guy–a leader?–and he had passion. And Schwarzenegger’s campaign ads have belatedly picked up the recall theme from the nonexistent recall campaign, although the ads fail to define the rationale for the recall. Meanwhile, nearly all Republican leaders support Arnold over McClintock. That’s why McClintock needed a homerun last night. His hope: that Republicans unfamiliar with him will now see him as viable.

Indisputably, Tom McClintock is principled. Disputably, he can win. There are two other reasons McClintock remains in the campaign: Pete Wilson and Warren Buffett. McClintock strongly opposed then-Gov. Wilson’s 1991 tax hike; Wilson is Schwarzenegger’s mentor and campaign chairman. Warren Buffett wants to end Proposition 13’s protection for homeowners; Buffett is Schwarzenegger’s main economics adviser.

Still, if McClintock does not, from this debate, show a dramatic surge in polls taken over the next 48 hours, he will likely see his voters switch to Arnold. It’s the fear factor: Cruz Bustamante.

More than 100 California stations (and national networks) carried this debate. I live in Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest media market, where virtually every station carried it. This meant that voters watched the actual debate, not simply its news coverage. As a result, this debate had enormous potential to change the course of the election; but did it? The debate was not enough of a circus to keep Gray Davis in office, but it probably reduced support for the recall.

With 13 days left, Davis will need a small miracle to stay in office. But the increasingly negative campaign could be just that miracle. Davis has kept a low profile–out of sight, out of mind. His would-be successors seem increasingly shrill in their TV ads. No wonder Davis hopes people will forget his trademark mudslinging. His only hope is that voters will stay with the devil they know.

The debate elevated Pete Camejo, Green-party candidate. He comes across as intelligent, thoughtful, and leftist. Can he and Arianna Huffington take liberal voters away from Cruz Bustamante?

Former Cambridge debater Huffington faces this political reality: Voters have a double standard. They judge aggressive women harshly. In past debates, she targeted the available Bustamante. This time, she could not resist her first (and last) chance at Arnold. For Arianna’s true believers, this was her moment. But we don’t know how she played with everyone else. But she did do McClintock’s dirty work.

Arnold Steinberg is a California-based political strategist.

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