With voting already underway and trailing in the polls, Kevin de León desperately needed to score big in Wednesday’s one-and-only quasi-debate with U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
Billed as a “conversation” by the Public Policy Institute of California, the event was carried live only on the internet in the middle of a weekday, and so was viewed by only a tiny fraction of California voters.
Therefore, de León, a state senator from Los Angeles, needed to make something happen that would reverberate in the state’s political media to give him a better chance of unseating a fellow Democrat who has been serving in the Senate for a quarter-century.
De León, however, was strangely subdued, even when Mark Baldassare, PPIC’s CEO and moderator of the event, gave him an early opening to hammer Feinstein on how she handled the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
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Baldassare virtually invited de León to tee off on Feinstein, as he had repeatedly done during the confirmation process, with a question about whether the sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh should be investigated further.
“The answer is yes,” de León replied blandly – a position that Feinstein tersely echoed a few minutes later. She was a principal figure in the sensational allegations by California psychologist Christine Blasey Ford that Kavanaugh assaulted her when both were high school students.
De León’s response on Kavanaugh was typical of his demeanor during the entire event, which did, in fact, turn out to be more of a polite conversation than a political debate.
On question after question, de León talked about his humble origins, endorsed the usual progressive causes such as universal health care, voiced the party line criticism of President Donald Trump and pointed to California as an example that the nation should emulate.
“We have to export California values to Washington and not the other way around,” he said at one point.
But although he had several opportunities to go on the attack, he voiced only mild and indirect criticism of Feinstein – and never raised the age issue that, polls say, might be Feinstein’s most vulnerable factor.
That non-aggressive approach gave Feinstein the opportunity to stress her seniority and declare, virtually unchallenged, that she and other Democrats would be powerless to enact their agendas until the Republican domination of the White House and Congress end.
“It’s like hitting your head against a concrete wall,” she said.
Feinstein benefited, too, by ducking a couple of very controversial issues – Gov. Jerry Brown’s bullet train project and whether Democrats should immediately begin impeachment proceedings against Trump should they recapture control of the House.
De León was a bit aggressive on impeachment, saying he would support it because “we have a president who makes Richard Nixon look like a choirboy by comparison.”
Feinstein, however, ignored the question and Baldassare did not press her for a response, nor did he after she also ducked whether California should proceed with high-speed rail.
The bottom line of Wednesday’s event is that nothing emerged to change the dynamic of the campaign and improve de León’s chances of winning on Nov. 6. The burden was on de León to give Californians a reason to dump Feinstein and send him to Washington. He didn’t do it.