Bill Whalen

Want a lot of debates between Gavin Newsom and John Cox? Fat chance

On this, the week that Robert Redford announced he’s retiring from acting, let’s revisit “The Candidate” and one scene in particular.

Early in the movie, Redford’s character (underdog Democrat Bill McKay) crashes a Malibu wildfire in hopes of showcasing his green agenda, only to be upstaged by his opponent. McKay wants a debate, but his elder foe smugly brushes him off (“Sure you do, son”).

Reverse the ages and party affiliations and that sums up California’s governor’s race, where underdog Republican John Cox shouldn’t count on much face-time with Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom between now and Election Day.


A recent poll gives Newsom a 24 percentage-point lead. Debate Cox multiple times? W.C. Fields (“never give a sucker an even break”) would spin in his grave.

Eight years ago, the last time there was no incumbent running for governor, Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman debated three times. It wasn’t enough. Too much time was wasted on the superficial – for example, arguing over the term “whore” in the final debate.

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Still, it was better than 2014, when Republican Neel Kashkari challenged Brown to 10 debates (the same number that Brown first proposed in 2010). Brown gave him one – on the same night as the kickoff of the NFL season.

Are 10 debates a possibility in 2018? No. But even if we got three, it wouldn’t begin to cover California’s many challenges.

The current wildfire explosion is a case in point. Newsom and Cox easily could devote an entire debate to the complexities of rising temperatures (the city of Redding had its hottest July on record), bad stewardship (the federal Bureau of Land Management claims there are 127 million dead or dying trees in California forests) and looming fiscal headaches (emergency services digging deeper into the state budget).

The same goes for pension obligations, public education, infrastructure, housing, crime and health care. All are worthy of a prolonged discussion.

Newsom and Cox, however, are haggling over having any debates. Newsom accepted an invitation from CNN, but rejected an overture from the San Francisco Chronicle and Sacramento’s KCRA-TV. Meanwhile, Cox is all-in for a Fox News debate, but passed on a chance to sit down with Newsom at a Politico California forum on Aug. 16 in Los Angeles.

My suggestion: Have local newspapers and TV stations plan one debate in Sacramento on taxes and budgeting priorities; a second in the Bay Area on housing and the economy, a third in Los Angeles on inclusiveness and a fourth in the Central Valley on the environment and land management.

Invite both candidates. If one takes a pass, the show still goes on.

Multiple debates won’t solve all of the problems with the current political climate. But the more often the two gubernatorial face each other, perhaps it will encourage them to face up to some harsh realities confronting California.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be reached at