Bill Whalen

Bill Whalen: When one debate just isn’t enough

Published: Friday, Sep. 5, 2014 - 12:00 am

If “four more years” is the inevitable outcome of the California governor’s race, then why not four more debates until we put this sucker to bed?

Say what you will about last night’s encounter between Gov. Jerry Brown and his Republican challenger, Neel Kashkari, one thing is certain: If this winds up being the lone televised exchange between the two candidates – eight-plus weeks before Election Day and competing for attention with opening night of the National Football League – then California voters are being done a great disservice.

Yes, recent tradition dictates that sitting California governors do this just the once (full disclosure: I worked for one such incumbent, Pete Wilson, who never lost sleep having debated only once in October 1994 – on a Friday night on public television, no less, so as to minimize interest).

Still, the one-debate standard is more of a guideline than a rule. And there happens to be an exception currently residing in the Horseshoe: Jerry Brown debated his Republican challenger four times when he sought re-election back in 1978.

If both sides are willing to listen, there’s an easy fix here. It begins with leaving Brown alone until Oct. 1 and the end of the bill-signing period. After that, he and Kashkari agree to four debates, in four different locales, with four different audiences in mind.

First up: a debate in Los Angeles, sponsored by Univision, tailored to California’s growing Latino electorate – Los Angeles County being home to a little under 5 million Latinos, about one-tenth the nation’s Latino population.

Obviously, immigration reform should be on the table. But if a recent Univision survey is to be believed, there are more pressing concerns for California Latinos: immigration finished sixth in importance behind education, jobs, government spending, Social Security, government actions affecting the pocketbook and, finally, health care.

The second debate would be in the Inland Empire and have a town-hall audience with millennial voters (sounds like a job for Vox.com, Ezra Klein’s experiment in selling more contextual journalism to a modern news audience – i.e., younger Californians who don’t know what it is to get newsprint on their fingertips).

You were expecting the San Francisco Bay Area, the epicenter of gentrified 20-somethings’ false entitlement, but it turns out that the Riverside-San Bernardino metroplex has a faster growing millennial population. The conversation here: Why is it that under-30 Californians, though possessing far more faith and optimism in the Golden State’s future, are far less engaged in the political process than older voting generations? In a study by the Public Policy Institute of California, millennials constitute more than one-third of California’s adult population but account for less than one-fifth of likely voters.

Our third debate takes us back to where both candidates want to be a year from now: Sacramento.

This time, it’s a discussion of what special interests should expect in the way of favoritism now that state revenue’s showing signs of life (talk about a need for a downtown arena: This debate could easily house 15,000 lobbyists, influence-peddlers, opportunists and hangers-on). For Brown, it’s a chance to tell all those unions and labor groups writing checks to his campaign what their money buys them, other than fiddling with rail lines and water tunnels. As for Kashkari, Republican governors likewise have their masters to answer to: When and where would he draw the line?

Our concluding debate: it’s sponsored by the Bay Area media in honor of their cousins working out of the state Capitol – a press corps that struggles to find a compelling narrative in this contest, all the while struggling with a lingering case on PADS (Post Arnold Depression Syndrome).

For one hour, in San Francisco, let reporters ask whatever’s on their minds. For if we’ve learned anything about Brown since his return to power, it’s that he enjoys the intellectual joust (sometimes in English, sometimes in Latin). For Kashkari, it’s welcoming yet another televised chance to get noticed.

History shows that Gray Davis and Dan Lungren took part in four debates in 1998. The more they met, the fewer Californians who bothered to watch. But at least they gave us a show.

There’s still plenty of time left in this race for Brown and Kashkari to share a stage and share their thoughts, audience shares be damned.


Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be reached at whalenoped@gmail.com.

Read more articles by Bill Whalen



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