"Who would you rather have a beer with?" might have been the deciding question in previous political races. The California governor’s race is different. The state is a mess, and getting messier. Neither of the two leading contenders has a real plan – or any intention – of doing much more than managing the state’s decline.
So the question in this race might be: Which candidate would you prefer to drive your ship on a one-way trip to the bottom of the ocean?
That’s probably the best way to judge Tuesday night’s debate. Neither Jerry Brown nor Meg Whitman offered a clear vision of the future. And both were self-aware enough that they didn’t bother to inspire us. These two aren’t inspirational. They each know they are enaged in a classic lesser-of-two-evils contest.
Whitman, auditioning for the role of the companion you want at a particularly ghastly funeral, was relentlessly calm and steady. She barely seemed to move. But she was clear-headed and coherent. She wasn’t trying to charm. She looked like someone just trying to get through an uncomfortable moment.
Her steadiness served her particularly well when Amy Chance of the Sacramento Bee asked how she could be trusted given how phony many of the claims in her ads are. Whitman politely said she didn’t accept the premise of the question, defended the substance of one ad (a false ad, but, hey, the successful politician must be able to argue black is white), and pivoted to an attack. By the end of Brown’s response and the follow-ups to this question about Whitman’s truthfulness, Brown was on the defensive talking about problems with his record as mayor and governor.
Whitman’s views, while hardly compelling, were at least expressed clearly. My guess is that most folks who watched the whole debate would score her the winner-because they could understand her.
Brown, on the other hand, talked so fast and in such short-hand that he was often hard to follow. But in the age of Sarah Palin, coherence is overrated. Brown, who has always been like this, may well be a better fit in the media universe in 2010 than he was in 1975.
One-liners are everything. And Brown was funny and got off the best sound bites of the night. That’s far more important than winning the actual debate, since most Californians will learn about the debate not by watching but by hearing the accounts of others.
His gallows humor – he joked a couple of times about his age (how it made him a responsible pensioner and an unlikely candidate for President of the United States) – would make him good company on a doomed vessel.
So call it a draw. Score the debate battle for Meg the Hedgehog. And give the sound-bite war to Jerry the Fox.