As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Debates? Bring It!

Gavin Newsom did what people commonly expect someone behind in the polls in a campaign to do - challenge the front-runner to a series of debates. From his press release:

“Our state is in need of real reform—we have a broken system that must be fixed,” said Newsom. “And now that there are two candidates for governor, we owe the Democratic voters of California an opportunity to compare our visions and platforms side-by-side.”

Mayor Newsom faxed a letter to the Brown campaign with a list of suggested ground rules. The memo suggests 11 debates in total—one in each media market in California. Ten debates would focus on one specific issue each, while the final debate would be open to all relevant issues. Newsom for California also made the following format suggestions:

• 90 minutes in length
• Opening and closing statements
• Moderated, town hall-style debates with direct audience participation
• Segments with moderator questions, public questions, and candidate-to-candidate questions
• An opportunity for candidates to respond directly to any assertions made about their record

I'm sure the hard-bitten cynics in the dwindling press corps will see this as a transparent ploy for attention from a trailing candidate. Nevertheless, my immediate reaction was: "A series of debates. Wouldn't that be nice?"

Phil Angelides and Steve Westly held a series of joint appearances and debates in the 2006 primary, and while that primary was in no way a model, it did help to clarify the positions of the candidates on various issues. The same for the nearly endless series of debates around the 2008 Presidential primary. I wouldn't call them all helpful, depending on the peccadilloes of the moderators and the laziness of the questioning. But in a large state predicated on TV ads and soundbites, 90-minute forums can at least offer a glimpse into the thinking of Gavin Newsom and Jerry Brown.

By contrast, our recent statewide gubernatorial elections have been characterized by almost no debates between the major candidates. In 2006, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Phil Angelides held only one debate. During the recall, Arnold deigned to attend one debate during the recall, despite the other candidates holding several, and he neglected to debate Gray Davis, who asked for debates in the final weeks. One could hardly sympathize with Davis, as he only held one debate with Bill Simon during their general election in 2002. As California's political media has shrunk, so have the opportunities for gubernatorial candidates to offer an unfiltered perspective on their plans for the state.

So while there are political reasons behind this, why not? I know I have some curiosity about how Brown and Newsom see their roles and what kind of leadership they can offer, and so should everyone. Fortunately, Brown has responded favorably if enigmatically to this request: "If Attorney General Brown decides to declare his candidacy for Governor, I'm sure he would support the notion of holding debates under terms to be mutually agreed upon by the candidates."

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