Any formal debate in the modern era of politics lives or dies on what’s seen by the audience at home, not by how the politicians appear from a vantage point just a few feet away. So at the risk of deflating my own story: It’s all up to you, dear voter.
After all, those who were sitting nearby didn’t grasp the enormity of President George H.W. Bush checking his watch in 1992. They didn’t hear Vice President Al Gore’s sighs in 2000 in the way they came across in the live broadcast. And they certainly couldn’t see how President Barack Obama’s body language would be perceived during his first 2012 debate with GOP challenger Mitt Romney.
And that’s all to say nothing of how radio audiences in 1960 generally thought that Richard Nixon beat John F. Kennedy, while the television audience saw a much more… sweaty… version of reality.
So, California voter, you’re really the best judge of what happens at 7 p.m. tonight, when Gov. Jerry Brown sits down for a live one-hour debate with his Republican challenger, Neel Kashkari.
Nonetheless, I can offer a few viewing tips from my vantage point as the moderator of The California Debate: Race for Governor 2014 — sponsored by KQED in partnership with the California Channel, the Los Angeles Times and Telemundo-52.
Three journalists, including me, will ask the questions. Neither candidate will see any of the questions or topics in advance, and only a few others besides the three of us — Dunia Elvir of Telemundo 52 and Jim Newton of the Los Angeles Times — have been working on the content. That’s as it should be. Debates aren’t a legitimate look at someone’s qualifications for a big job like governor if candidates can’t be prepared for anything that might come their way.
Here’s what I’m looking for…
Under Pressure: Live television and radio can be intense, and a debate being broadcast across California (and nationally by C-SPAN) is about as intense as it gets. Kashkari, in his first-ever run for office, has never really formally debated; Brown has done it so many times that he probably can’t even remember how many there have been.
To be fair, Kashkari has faced some intense pressure before. The guy practically was dragged to Capitol Hill every time anyone wanted to gripe in 2008 and 2009 about TARP, the federal bank bailout he helped craft. But tonight’s event casts a far wider net, with so many important issues facing California. Can he handle them all? Can he promote himself while also criticizing Brown? Can he adjust to the limiting environment of a small TV studio, the chair and podium, the off-camera lights signaling 15 seconds left to speak and time’s up?
The Professor: For the governor, the big overarching question is whether he comes ready to debate … or determined to lecture. Brown has a tendency to not only reach very deep (too deep?) into his grab bag of erudition, but as reporters know he can also be a little testy when he senses someone doesn’t quite understand the issue at hand. Those traits can be a bit of a double-edged sword in a big political debate.
What’s The Memorable Moment? Debates often have two predictable elements to them — sometimes in sync, sometimes not: the planned stunt or quip, and the unexpected sizzle. Candidates often come in with something that they think will make the 11 p.m. TV newscast, but that eagerness can sometimes lead them to forget to actually engage in the here and now, the give and take that debates are really all about. As moderator, my job is to try to keep them engaged with the subject matter … and to discourage gimmicks. In this debate, we’ve made clear to the candidates that our expectations are for substance, not shtick. We’ve also made clear that I will, if needed, jump in and redirect Brown and Kashkari to actually answer the question.
The Day’s News: My fellow debate journalists and I have spent the better part of the past 10 days drafting questions and discussing which issues are paramount. But let’s face it: Big news that impacts California’s future will beg to be discussed. Based on this morning’s headlines, I have some ideas of what topics will get folded into our list of questions … but I’m not going to divulge them just yet. Suffice it to say that for all the preparation the governor and his challenger have been doing in private, the news of this Thursday may likely shape the way voters perceive their readiness for the next four years.
Lasting Impact Or Flash In the Pan? And finally, does tonight’s debate shape the race for governor in any discernible way over the next two months? It may not, but it certainly will give viewers and listeners their first chance to take stock of the record of Jerry Brown and the temperament and ideas of Neel Kashkari. There’s been a lot of griping that this is the only scheduled debate between the two men between now and Nov. 4, and that’s entirely fair; None of us involved in this broadcast think it should be the last time the two square off. Kashkari has asked for as many as 10 debates, and it’s up to Brown to decide if he’ll do this again.
It’s also true, in the interest of full disclosure, that Brown’s campaign insisted this week of September was the only time when the governor was willing to debate. The media partners picked the actual day and time without any input from outsiders, but Kashkari and his advisers are angry that Brown had so much leverage. Incumbents usually do have more heft — and given the refusal to debate by another big-state governor facing a long-shot challenger — it’s to Brown’s credit that he’s even doing any debate. The trick for Kashkari is to walk out of tonight’s event with something that has staying power, some example of why California needs a new governor. For Brown, the trick is to walk away with as few political scratches as possible, and certainly no bruises that won’t heal before Election Day.