Sacramento area voters were treated Wednesday – or more accurately, subjected – to a mini version of the vapid exchanges of pre-digested bromides, sound bites and buzzwords that comprise contemporary American political discourse.
The occasion was a televised debate between Democratic Congressman Ami Bera and Republican challenger Doug Ose, a former congressman, who are locked into one of the nation’s tightest congressional races.
Their 7th Congressional District encompasses Sacramento’s eastern and southern suburbs, reflects the region’s high level of ethnic diversity, and includes some of its wealthiest residents and some of its poorest.
It also is a near-perfect political microcosm – not of California, but of the nation as a whole, with its virtual tie in party identification and its razor-thin election results.
Two years ago, physician Bera defeated four-term Republican incumbent Dan Lungren by just 3.4 percentage points as Barack Obama was winning the district’s presidential vote by just 4 points.
However, that was with about 75 percent of the district’s registered voters casting ballots.
Ose preceded Lungren in the seat when the district had a different number and was more rural and Republican. The candidates and supposedly independent outside interests have poured heavy money into the duel for television ads and mailers.
And with Obama’s sharp decline in popularity, plus the prospect of a much-lower turnout of voters – perhaps under 50 percent – the outcome is very much in doubt.
That said, whether Bera returns to Washington or Ose reclaims his old seat makes almost no difference in the congressional balance of power. Republicans almost certainly will retain control of the House, and this year’s real national battle is over the Senate.
Thus the stakes in the 7th District race are more personal than strategic and, predictably, it has become an exchange of personal character attacks and talking points largely aimed at the white, middle-aged homeowners most likely to vote.
That superficial ambiance was evident Wednesday night as the two jousted in the studio of public television station KVIE.
Journalists on the debate panel tried, as best they could, to steer the dialogue into matters of substance with their questions, but the two rivals often used their responses to attack each other.
Throughout, each spent much of his time dredging up and criticizing his rival’s past congressional votes on various matters ranging from the Iraq War to Obamacare and almost nothing on what he would do if elected.
That finger-pointing approach, as banal as it may be, unwittingly reflects the reality that an individual congressional member, particularly one with low seniority, is a tiny and largely powerless cog in a national government that’s starkly divided along ideological and cultural lines.