Political debates are all about expectations, and going into Thursday night’s one-and-only face-off between Gov. Jerry Brown and Republican challenger Neel Kashkari, the expectations gap was as wide as the Carrizo Plain.
Brown has been a vote-seeking politician for nearly a half-century, while political novice Kashkari was still in diapers when Brown was first elected governor in 1974.
Brown may be the most verbose politician in state history, a radio talkathoner between political gigs who peppers his declamations with obscure Latin phrases and historical references, as well as occasional bits of self-deprecating humor.
Kashkari, the son of Kashmiri immigrants and a one-time investment banker, had displayed a certain glibness but never had been seriously tested in verbal combat.
Brown has many millions of dollars stashed for his re-election campaign while Kashkari has bupkis. And, finally, polls indicate that Brown appears to be coasting to a fourth term, although the most recent Field Poll, released just before the debate, shows the gap narrowing a bit.
The flip side of the expectations game, however, was that Kashkari had nothing to lose by going on the attack, declaring even before the debate began in a Sacramento television studio that he would force Brown to “answer for his record.”
And, in a sense, he did, helped by questions from a panel of journalists that tended to focus on Brown’s record as governor.
The topics ranged from the highly controversial twin water tunnels Brown wants to bore beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to his pet bullet-train project, banning plastic bags and Thursday’s announcement that Tesla would build its huge battery factory in Reno, rather than California.
Brown “didn’t do nearly enough” to secure the factory, Kashkari said, portraying it as part of larger problem of attracting job-creating investment. Brown countered by saying that Tesla was demanding a “massive upfront payment” and repeatedly noting that the state had recovered virtually all the jobs it lost during recession.
The debate’s overall tenor was that of an attacking Kashkari and a defensive Brown – although the governor did take a few potshots at his rival for managing the federal bailout of failing big banks.
Overall, Kashkari did well, but if he wanted Brown to lose his cool – which he does on occasion when facing criticism – it didn’t happen. Brown eschewed his characteristic verbal gymnastics and remained on message: that his governorship has produced economic recovery, fiscal stability and educational progress.
“We’ve got momentum and are headed in the right direction,” the governor concluded.
And because Brown maintained his cool and his message, the debate produced nothing that would resonate and slow his own momentum toward a historic fourth term.