Audience Loses First Brown/Whitman Debate


Only the dead know Claremont.

A viewing party of east L.A.County Democrats enjoyed watching former California governor Jerry Brown outmaneuver former eBay official Meg Whitman in the first California gubernatorial debate.

The gang at Russ Warner headquarters in Claremont got plenty of applause lines from Brown, who presented as smoother, better informed and—in his peculiar, dry, pleasure-sucking way—more energetic than Republican Whitman. (Warner, the host of this TV party, is running for Congressman in the Golden State's 26th district, a seat being defended by David Dreier.)

Whitman's best punch of the night came when she charged Brown with running away from his own record as the "education mayor" of Oakland. In the same flurry she also scored a glancing blow against Brown's opposition to Proposition 13, the state's landmark property tax limitation.

Other than that, it was Brown's night. It goes without saying that Jerry Brown is a zen fascist führer who will send the suede denim police to take away my uncool niece. And my inclination whenever a man and woman compete is to back the woman and find any excuse for her lousy performance. Finally, Whitman's general (very general) references to free market capitalism were just the song I was in the mood for. I even appreciated (without quite converting to) her economic case for the death penalty: that it's cheaper to fry the death row population than to keep them alive.

But I recognized Whitman tonight as a species I got to know all too well during my dotcom days: the dull, untutored powerpointillist with a genius for changing the subject the moment her talking points start to fail. The second time you're using the old Einstein's-definition-of-insanity chestnut in one night is twice too many.

Brown also undermined Whitman's credibility by noting that she cravenly excluded cops and firefighters—who represent a fourth of the state's total pension liability and are well represented in pension "spiking" and related abuses—from her plans for pension reform.

While Jerry Brown, like Sen. Barbara Boxer in her debate with Carly Fiorina, waged class warfare against Whitman, he didn't engage in Boxer's vapid and gushy condemnations of outsourcing or try to make an issue of Whitman's wealth. Instead, he described Whitman's contributor base strictly in terms of political quid pro quo. This may or may not have deflected Whitman's very important complaint that Brown is beholden to unions, but it demonstrated his familiarity with the practice of California politics. And in this debate it was Whitman, the career non-voter, who needed to prove her understanding of how government works.

In fact, while it was to be expected that Brown would try to get a few digs in against government employees in this era of Bob Rizzo and the pension buffet, he distanced himself from his union patrons repeatedly, with references to having said no to organized labor several times during his own career. (All of which I'm sure will turn out to be bullshit once somebody checks it out, but still!)

It's not clear whether the remote audience in Claremont (the actual debate was at UC Davis) even registered all that tough-on-unions baloney. My incomplete and informal canvas turned up no private-sector employees and little awareness that California even has a pension crisis that worries both Republicans and Democrats.

I did get a fairly decent level of libertarian recognition, though. One Brown supporter asked if libertarianism is "what Bill Maher is for," while another immediately recognized the "free minds and free markets" slogan as a libtertoid tell and ended our conversation. (Just more support for my campaign to change Reason's slogan to "Arbeit macht frei.")

Except for one query on the candidates' plans to address the state's perpetual water shortage, the questions were uniformly dull, and it was a pretty substanceless debate.

A month ago, if you'd asked me to build a scenario in which one Republican wins a prominent California race and another loses, I'd have picked the hail and well met Whitman as the winner and the weird, offputting Fiorina as the loser. One debate in, I think I might be ready to reverse that.