Republican Neel Kashkari will debate Gov. Jerry Brown on Sept. 4.
Republican Neel Kashkari will debate Gov. Jerry Brown on Sept. 4.

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.

  • jskdn

    “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.”

    There’s nothing that prevents networks from scheduling a series of debates while leaving it up to the candidates to decide whether to show up or not. If incumbents choose not to, then voters would still be able to hear the challenger answer questions for an hour or so, valuable to voters in itself and a prospect that creates a cost to not showing. Debates are an opportunity for voters to garner information about candidates outside the tendentiousness, at best, of campaign efforts. They also can reduce the power of campaign money by providing a way to reach voters in a substantial manner that can’t be bought. Democracy ought to be a contest of ideas openly debated before the electorate. Unfortunately the established news media has often shown itself to be not supportive of that notion.

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  • CharliePeters

    BP-DuPont GMO fuel affect the beef or water?

    I’m confused, that a graph of ethanol used in our gas and the price we pay for fuel sure paints an interesting picture.

    An op-ed from May 1, 2002 warned the legislation that is requiring ethanol might create an additional 10% increase in price.

    An internet search indicated California fuel ethanol use was very minor and with a pump price of about $1.37 per gallon of regular CA CARB fuel.

    Fed EPA told CARB’s board Chair to use 5.6% and the fuel price went up.

    More time passed and the Arnold crew went for 10% and the price goes up.

    We now are at 10% and considering 15% and the price has gone from about $1.37 to $3.50.

    The California Government regulators say we use about 14 billion gallons of fuel per year.

    So if the price has changed over $2.– in a decade the ethanol laced fuel price increase may be about $40 Billion per year. Is it time for Governor Brown to request a waiver from EPA?

    Does California use 1500 gallons of water to grow corn to produce 1 gallon of GMO corn fuel ethanol? Does California water providers check for ethanol in the supply water for public consumption? Should California request a waiver of the “Wallet Flushing” ethanol mandate so fuel ethanol ozone is in federal EPA compliance?

  • CharliePeters

    Shell fuel ethanol from Brazil affect California beef or the Nestle water?

    Dr. Stan’s California water & fuel supply opinion

    http://mediaarchives.gsradio.net/radioliberty/121213d.mp3

Author

John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new California Politics and Government Desk.  A veteran of almost two decades of political coverage, he served nine years as the statehouse bureau chief for KQED Public Radio and The California Report, and most recently as political editor for the Sacramento ABC-TV affiliate, News10 (KXTV). John served as moderator of the only 2014 gubernatorial debate, and was recently named by The Washington Post as one of the nation's most influential statehouse reporters.  Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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