Jack Ohman

Two candidates, 60 seconds: Is this the best way to debate?

In the 1972 film “The Candidate” about a fictional U.S. Senate race in California, an aged GOP incumbent named Crocker Jarmon and a fresh-faced Democratic newcomer, Bill McKay, with no political experience face off in a single televised debate. The newcomer, the son of a former California governor, manages to change the race based on his performance.

McKay’s slogan? “A Better Way.”

In the 2014 version played out Thursday night in the Senator Hotel in downtown Sacramento, the aged incumbent is the son of a former California governor and the Democrat, and his fresh-faced challenger is a GOP newcomer who has no real political experience.

The set itself in the Jerry Brown-Neel Kashkari debate was eerily similar to the film version: black backdrop, a few California journalists asking questions, and no audience.

So who won?

Well, if a challenger had to completely destroy the incumbent, then I’d have to give it to Brown. But if the challenger merely had to make some points energetically and look like he belonged there, then I would have to give it to Kashkari.

Kashkari is in a difficult position; he has no money to speak of, really, and Brown, according to the latest Field Poll, is ahead by a substantial 16 percentage points. My problem was not with the debaters or the journalists: they did fine. My problem with the debate is the format, which is pretty much everything that’s wrong with politics today.

My problem with it is that it was so fast-paced and superficial that I suspect the few voters who were watching might have correctly felt they were watching a program called “California’s Got Gubernatorial Talent,” and they had tuned into the segment where the contestants had to solve each of this state’s convoluted issues in 30 to 60 seconds.

I watched many journalists seated by me looking down at their computers screens and iPhones, attempting to take notes and tweet as the punches flew. Our time for reflection was on par with the candidates; ADHD journalists chasing ADHD candidates attempting to woo an ADHD electorate, which was probably watching the first NFL game of the season. No doubt they were channel-surfing between commercials, too.

I give Brown and Kashkari credit for trying. Both men looked frantic, and Kashkari, in particular, looked almost apoplectic in his efforts to squeeze in every point under the game-show clock. Kashkari’s eyes danced and his hands chopped almost maniacally, as if he was trying to catch his own unseen words in the ether.

Brown is 76 years old; he is still very agile and quick, and managed to toss off his one-liners. The trouble was that both men had so many obviously scripted points that there was no warmth in their humor, really, just two kind of mean guys trying to beat the buzzer. Brown had to speak so rapidly that he almost seemed winded and asked an aide to replenish his water. The aide did so, walking across the camera’s line of sight.

Think back to the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon presidential debate for a moment. In that debate, both candidates had eight-minute openings. Eight minutes. In the 2014 California gubernatorial debate, they had one-minute opening and closing statements, barely enough time to discuss what they had for breakfast, let alone lay out some sort of vision for California.

Here’s the thing. In the 1972 debate in “The Candidate,” there was some self-deprecation, some humanity. The old senator observed, after being asked about his declining lead in the polls, that he had been on many losing football teams when they thought they had it won. The newcomer lightly noted that he was the challenger and behind, so he didn’t believe in polls.

They answered slowly, somewhat genially, like real people do. The veins weren’t popping on their necks, and they weren’t gasping for air and water like beached carp.

To paraphrase Bill McKay, I say there has got to be a better way.

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