DEBATE ANALYSIS: Brokaw brings heat, candidates refuse to swing
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.