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DEBATE ANALYSIS: Brokaw brings heat, candidates refuse to swing

By Steven Luo October 13, 2010 3 Comments Print Share

Giants ace Tim Lincecum apparently isn’t the only one who can bring the heat around these parts.

Former NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw, moderating the third and final debate between California gubernatorial candidates Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown in San Rafael, brought his best stuff, asking thoughtful questions designed to draw out the candidates on many of the long-term structural issues affecting the state.

But Brown and Whitman didn’t swing at the questions, instead choosing to stick to a game of political beanball — trading jabs on Whitman’s housekeeper, a Brown aide’s “whore” remark and even verbal miscues.

Whitman, the political novice whose performance in the first two televised debates appeared to be highly scripted, seemed more relaxed, confident and comfortable in this one. Frequently quoting statistics to make her argument, she held her own in the open-ended conversation that Brokaw encouraged.

And, perhaps not surprisingly for a candidate whose poll numbers have shown signs of slippage in recent days, she came out swinging early and often in this debate. Lines accusing Brown of being part of a “war on jobs” and painting him as a career politician — at a time when distrust of politicians is at an all-time high — stood out as particularly effective.

Brown brought his trademark rambling style to this debate, but gave more focused answers than in the first encounters. Nor did he shy away from attacks on his opponent — at one point audaciously asking her how much money her proposal to eliminate the capital gains tax would save her personally.

The result was a debate in which the candidates seemed more interested in attacking each other than in debating the issues. One particularly ill-tempered exchange had the candidates bandying terms such as “just wrong,” “demonstrably false” and “dishonest answer” at each other.

Whitman even used a small verbal misstep by Brown to take a shot. Brown, meaning to say “I’ve got the police chiefs’ backing,” instead started “I’ve got the police chiefs in my back [...]” before pausing to correct himself. Whitman interrupted, laughing as she said, “I think he said he’s got the police chiefs in his back pocket.”

In charge of keeping the peace was Brokaw. The veteran newsman — perhaps influenced by criticism of his performance moderating the 2008 presidential “town hall” debate, where his aggressive holding of the candidates to time limits drew a Saturday Night Live parody — gave Brown and Whitman freedom to answer each other’s charges, creating a free-flowing encounter.

Brokaw asked several thought-provoking, potentially provocative questions designed to draw the candidates out on the state’s many challenges, with an early question, citing a Pew study finding that 40 percent of California voters believe that the state budget could be cut by 20 percent without affecting critical services, on whether voters’ expectations are “unrealistic,” setting the tone.

But in each case, both the candidates took the politically safe route, unwilling or unable to get to the heart of each question.

Whitman said voters had the “right instinct” on budget cuts, while Brown said “we’re all unrealistic” when it comes to hard choices such as cutting the budget. Neither challenged Brokaw’s assertion that budget cuts of that size would result in the gutting of public services such as prisons and transportation.

Both candidates offered their backing to Proposition 13, the 1978 voter-approved initiative limiting state property taxes and requiring a two-thirds vote to raise taxes of any kind, without challenging the premise that revising the measure is necessary to fix the state’s problems — and then immediately turned to attacking each other’s tax policies and track records.

And both offered warmed-over talking points on their proposed changes to the budget process when asked about reforms to parts of California’s “fundamental political structure,” such as the initiative process or term limits.

In today’s highly charged political environment, where every word of a candidate is microscopically examined for political advantage, it’s not entirely surprising that candidates for higher office would choose to avoid answering such questions — at least not without focus-group testing the answers first.

But the problems at the heart of those questions aren’t going away on their own. And it’s not possible to hit a home run if you don’t even try to swing at the ball.

Steven Luo is the Political Director for the California Beat. Contact Luo at sluo@californiabeat.org.

3 Comments »

  • Montana said:

    Griff Harsh, the husband of California gubernatorial candidate Nutmeg Whitman, acknowledged in a statement on Thursday that “it is possible” he received and wrote notes on a letter from the Social Security Administration back in 2003, regarding the former Housekeeper/Maid. The Harsh/ Whitman household then fired their housekeeper in June 2009 (after nine years of service), when Nutmeg handlers decided that she was an election liability.

    And now the Jill Armstrong, a former full-time nanny of the Harsh/ Whitman dungeon, came to the defense of the Housekeeper/Maid and told the San Francisco Chronicle that she believes Diaz’s claim because she “know[s] the family” and “what it was like.”

    Meg, Meg, Meg, where do I start, you have reportedly spent $140 million of your own money to get elected Governor but you couldn’t use some of it to get your housekeeper (after nine years of service) some legal help to get her papers, and worse you lied about it. Wow, what a WITCH, of course I meant it with a “B”.

    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/3036677/#39450925

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cGRrNs8-s5w

    But your comments on holding employers accountable for hiring undocumented workers real takes the cake, I assume you exempt yourself and your husband, or will you be turning yourself in.

    Meg on holding employers accountable:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h4fWLHiw8zA

    Meg you think you can buy the election, but what puzzles many is if you real cared and loved California then why not do your civic duty and vote, seems more rhetoric than anything else.

    In good times we might give you a try but not in our disaster mode that we find ourselves in after that so-called outsider Independent Republican, named Arnold Schwarzenegger (sold to us by radio personalities John and Ken), ruined our state, yah we will trust another one of you liars, think not. And another thing nine years this maid was in your house, in your house and you failed to learned this major thing about her, come on this sounds like a huge lie that no one can believe in.

    Ebay paid out $200,000 because Nutmeg assaulted an employee, so it’s not the first time she has mistreated an employee. Good luck winning Nutmeg, money will buy you admiration from the majority just from the Gay Old Party (GOP), but not from all of California.

  • sharon said:

    If you believe that people need jobs and that your property taxes and income taxes are too high, the only way to go is Meg whitman. Throw the housekeeper gate away and all of the other issues that are meant to deflect you from what is most important.

    Our State is dangerously in debt by billions. We need to tighten our belts, reduce spending, reduce employee size by attrition, and get our government to rid itself from taking on all the debt that they have gotten us into. We need to make it easier for employers to stay here and attract new employers by reducing fees and giving incentives to businesses. We already have lost major employers to States with friendlier business climates.

    Brown is for green, which is fine for employers who can afford to go green, but not for all employers at this time. He refers to employers as fat cats and just does not get it that businesses are hurting, people are hurting, losing their homes, and are unemployed. We need to offer employers incentives so that employers will hire.

    Brown went against Proposition 13 which if not passed would have forced families out of their homes because of outrageous property taxes. Again, he just did not get it.

    He says that he won’t raise taxes unless voters approve it. He is not saying that he won’t raise taxes and he has generally gone to that instead of solving the problems by fiscal responsibility.

    Again, Meg Whitman, for a business person’s perspective of solving our State’s financial crisis.

  • Benito said:

    The Republicans are so funny, when the economy is good you say let’s all celebrate “Cinco de Mayo, my brothers” but when the economy is down “it’s all your fault, you damn immigrant”. When most Americans (with Latin America roots) go to the polls this November we will remember that the GOP has gone on a nationwide rant in proposing and passing several anti-immigration legislation (that our US Courts continue to strike down) and have continue to blame the immigrant for the flat economy or worse. We will remember who stands with us and who stands against us, so trying to stop it now is somewhat funny, but go ahead, you will not change our minds.

    Plus the more radical of the GOP are now attacking our Constitution and our Bill of Rights, in their crazy notion of wanting to take away rights that all of us take for granted in their misguided attempt to garner some much needed votes, they really are fools, and leading the GOP towards obscurity because they are no longer a party of ideas, just of empty suits. Your hate made you do it, in November; you will reap what you have sown. I wonder what Abraham Lincoln would say about todays GOP, he unlike the current GOP was a man of ideas.