Did we just watch the last California gubernatorial debate – ever?
Trick question. Very few of us bothered to watch last week’s debate between Gov. Jerry Brown and challenger Neel Kashkari. If this proves to be the last such debate – and there was almost no debate this year – most Californians wouldn’t notice the event’s demise.
While it’s perfectly fine for Californians not to follow state politics closely (the world is full of more important things), a gubernatorial debate ought to offer a moment that is an exception to our inattention. A well-designed public conversation between candidates could offer our sprawling state a rare opportunity to consider what is most important in our shared civic life, and in preparing for our future.
The timing and structure of today’s political debates don’t allow for such a moment. Even I, who must write about California for a living, had little interest in this debate. Juggling three children while my wife was out of town, I entered Thursday evening with no firm plan as to how I would watch.
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In the car on the way over to my parents’ house for dinner I searched the dial for the debate, landing on public radio just as Brown and Kashkari made their opening statements.
The early conversation focused not on California but on the polls and who might win – a pointless conversation given the lack of suspense around the election’s outcome. Twelve minutes later, my sons and I reached my parents’ house, where I turned on the TV. None of the English-language network affiliates in L.A. were showing the debate, but KVEA, the Telemundo station, was airing it.
In whatever language, it was hard not to notice the contrast in ages: an elderly white man, 76, and an Indian American (who calls himself a “brown kid”) and is 35 years Brown’s junior. In a first for a major party nominee for governor, Kashkari is also younger than me (by four months). They represent two types familiar to Californians: the wise, old guy a bit too schooled in the limits of the world, and the young guy who says he has an app to transform the world but can’t explain how it will work.
Whatever you think of him, Brown’s longevity is a gift to California, because it connects us across generations. My parents, both journalists, love to reminisce about covering the 1966 gubernatorial race, between Ronald Reagan and Brown’s father, Pat, for their college newspaper. My mom likes to recall my dad predicting that Brown would win, because Californians would never elect a movie star as governor.
After a few minutes, I grew frustrated with the Spanish translation; Kashkari was dubbed by a loud, grating voice. So I pulled out my computer to watch a live stream.
It was striking how the two men struggled to talk fast enough to fit the short time periods – 90 seconds for responses, 30 seconds for rebuttals. How could anyone learn much of anything from this?
At one point, after Brown attempted an answer to the complicated question of what to do about the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the moderator turned to the challenger and said: “Mr. Kashkari, 30 seconds on water.” Thirty seconds on water? It would take 30 minutes to explain the Delta, much less the water issues confronting the state.
The combatants have things to say we should hear. Brown understands California as well as anyone alive and could explain its complicated challenges. Kashkari has a fairly detailed platform that he deserves time to explain. Instead, they had just enough time for banal sound bites – Brown kept saying California has “momentum” (fact check: so does almost anything going downhill). Kashkari kept talking about “civil rights” and “jobs” without explaining how he would guarantee either. And then each impugned the other’s motives, in clipped, short insults devoid of context.
After the debate, pundits, citing these personal exchanges, claimed that they showed differences between the candidates. In fact, the opposite is true. Such attacks result from the absence of significant differences between them, or among California elites. The debate was striking for its ideological agreements – on the need for more spending on schools and infrastructure, action against climate change, and socially welcoming policies on marriage and immigration.
Why do we persist in holding debates like this? It’s especially maddening when you consider that our state is full of technologists revolutionizing how we communicate. Why not take the debates away from media, who can’t draw audiences for them, and turn them over to universities or nonprofits with expertise in civic engagement? Even a minor updating – let one candidate offer a PowerPoint of their plans, while the other interrupts with questions and comments – would be a huge improvement.
But powerful media and political people are accustomed to the current format, and so it may live on, zombie-like, for a few more elections. But next time, like most of my fellow Californians, I won’t be watching. A debate like last week’s isn’t worth our time.