Jack Ohman

Jack Ohman: Smart though he is, Kashkari doesn’t have Brown’s depth

Neel Kashkari, a serious person, fresh off defeating by three points a man who was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon into an airport, has challenged Gov. Jerry Brown to 10 debates.

Brown should leap at the opportunity. Let me explain.

Far-behind challengers always invite incumbents to debate. Usually, this strategy doesn’t work, and the more debates a challenger asks for usually indicates how very, very far behind they are.

Ten debates is a huge number, especially in California, where many voters really couldn’t be bothered to actually vote. But it won’t make much difference, barring some unforeseen Brown catastrophe.

Still, Brown, a man of the mind, challenged Meg Whitman to 10 debates in 2010. Four years later, he has a pretty good record to defend. Lack of verbal facility isn’t one of Brown’s problems, and I expect that Brown would do well in debates with anyone. He’s the only politician I’ve ever seen who knocked Bill Clinton to his knees in a debate. Clinton is very good at debating.

Kashkari has been all over the ideological map in this campaign and has no California record. I assume that his grasp of the issues is good for a layman. Brown is no layman. He has held some sort of office since 1969, which is when, as a reference point, President Nixon took office. He has been governor longer than anyone in California history, and he’s an energetic public speaker even at 76.

So what’s the upside for Kashkari?

Exposure, I suppose. Kashkari is a very bright guy, personable, good-looking and two generations younger than Brown. So, I can see what Kashkari is going for. But I want to insert a cautionary tale for Neel Kashkari.

In 2010, the same year Brown was elected to a third term, the governor of Oregon, Dr. John Kitzhaber, was running for another term after an eight-year hiatus. He, too, is seeking a fourth term this year.

Kitzhaber’s 2010 opponent was also a young, charismatic, personable man, named Chris Dudley. Chris Dudley was an NBA basketball player who had graduated from Yale, and had the additional advantage of lots of personal resources.

You could get a lot of smart money on Dudley’s chances in 2010. People think Oregon is a blue state, but I suspect it’s really a very pale purple.

Kitzhaber and Dudley were running very close in the polls. Kitzhaber had to overcome a perception that he was aloof in his dealings with the Oregon Legislature.

Dudley asked for debates. Kitzhaber gave him one.

I was sitting about 15 feet from them while they debated. As I watched in a television studio, I saw Dudley towering over Kitzhaber. Dudley is nearly 7 feet tall, and Kitzhaber was a foot shorter and change. Dudley was also 20 years younger than Kitzhaber.

As the debate progressed, I thought Dudley was doing well; he wasn’t making any mistakes, he was able to answer the questions and he was well-briefed. In fact, I thought Dudley was going to be perceived as the winner.

And then a reporter asked Dudley if he could think of one land use mistake in Oregon. Oregon is very big on land use.

Dudley was unable to think of one. The reason that Dudley couldn’t think of one is not that he was dumb, because he wasn’t. It was because he hadn’t held any elective office in Oregon, not for a day. A bunch of smart guys thought that he would be good as a candidate, and he was. But on that one answer, Dudley blew any chance he had of becoming governor.

Kitzhaber said in response to Dudley’s blank, after citing a land use mistake (he had also been Senate president), “You gotta be quick in these things,” referring to debates.

You gotta be quick in these things, particularly if you want to win. As bright as Kashkari is, he is not going to be able to access the hard drive that Brown, the son of a governor, has.

I wish Kashkari luck. I hope there are a lot of debates. Debates are useful exercises, and voters deserve them, even if they were asleep at the switch on June 3. But make sure you have a good land use answer. It’s not going to be a ride on the crazy train.

Dudley lost by 10,000 votes. I suspect that if he had to do it over again, he might not have debated. He’s living in California now. If I were Neel Kashkari, I’d call him and ask him for some advice.