Two Bald Guys And Their Plastic Bags

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

If I were writing a headline for Thursday night’s gubernatorial debate, it would be just that: Two Bald Guys and Their Plastic Bags.

Two bald guys running for governor of California — they are different in other ways – talked for less than an hour about a number of topics, each of which is so complicated that you could talk for an hour without people understanding. And the only real news: that Gov. Brown will sign a bill banning single-use plastic bags; Neel Kashkari would have vetoed it, he said.

But since this is the only debate of this campaign, and habit requires it, here are some winners and losers of the night.

Winners

Kashkari. He won just by showing up and appearing on the same stage as Brown That provided more attention than he’s gotten in the campaign. But he did better than that. He was sharp, to the point and offered a critique of Brown that’s dead on—the governor is an incrementalist in times that require much bigger changes. His performance was strong enough that Brown complimented a few times on his salesmanship.

Brown. He was still breathing at the end of the debate, all but assuring that he’s winning a new term. There were a few uncomfortable old guy moments (Latinos is not a synonym for undocumented immigrants, governor). He did a good job of reminding the audience repeatedly of Kashkari’s time at Goldman Sachs and at Treasury. (Though there was a missed opportunity here. Brown should have challenged Kashkari by saying, “Build me a rocket, Neel.”)

Ideological differences. There were almost none. They agree on climate change, on same-sex marriage, driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, spending more on education and infrastructure.

Water infrastructure. Both candidates want much more of it. They debated whether the other was supporting enough such infrastructure, and the right such infrastructure.

Democratic rhetoric: Kashkari, the Republican, used the language of a Democrat. There were multiple uses of “civil rights” and “working families” and “investments” (instead of saying “spending) that are usually uttered by Democrats. Memo to Neel: Drop “union bosses,” the sort of term that appeals to the Fox News crowd but no one else. “The unions” would do just fine.

Losers

Hair Club for Men. These two guys seem to be doing pretty well in life without anything on top.

Public understanding. Any citizen watching this would have been left confused by the details of the policy areas the two were talking about. Both men have command of details, but water policy or teacher tenure have nuances that are important, and can’t be described, much less commented upon in 90-second and 30-second increments as the tired debate format required.

Post-game punditry. There wasn’t the usual post-debate spin by campaigns. And pundits kept saying and Tweeting that it was a debate that exposed real differences. What debate were they watching? These two men are both moderates who didn’t show any real disagreement on social values or good life. The disagreements were about particulars or specific projects, such as whether high-speed rail serves or undermines economic and climate change goals.

Stopping football’s cultural hegemony. Nothing here would have drawn people away from the football game. And Kashkari didn’t help. His greatest blunder was thanking people at the top for watching the debate rather than the Packers and the Seahawks play football. All that did was remind people who might have forgotten that something more entertaining – the game – was on.

Plastic bags. They’re going to become harder to get. I’m not sure if I’ll remember any of the other policy particulars.

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