Rating the California gubernatorial debate

One of the most educational experiences of my three and a half years at Howard University was the Martin Luther King Jr. Debate Society under Dr. Laura Fleet and her graduate assistant, Albert Wynn.
In 1973, the national proposition was “the powers of the Presidency should be limited” — an excellent platform for learning how to conduct research, frame arguments and support a position, on either side of an issue.
We had the advantage of being in Washington, where we could do our research in the Library of Congress. I had the personal advantage of being a copy boy in the newsroom of the Washington Post during Watergate. It was pre-personal computer times, so we had to painstakingly write out index cards on every bit of information we could find about the Executive Branch. The product was two long file drawers, which we would lug around to our competitions, as far away as Susquehanna, PA or Atlanta, GA.
It’s a quaint memory in a time of search engines and tablet hand held computers, but I have most despaired of the name-calling and distortion that passes for political discourse, particularly having seen how debate is supposed to be done.
The California gubernatorial debate on Tuesday was a hopeful sign that perhaps we’ve begun to reach the bottom of the decline in political speech and are starting to bounce back up.
Both Attorney General Jerry Brown, the Democratic nominee, and Meg Whitman, the Republican nominee, did a good job of stating their positions in a respectful and clear way. The difference between the Tuesday debate and what normally happens is that each candidate made clear statements of what they portrayed as facts and each addressed systematically the positions of the other.
It was as close to a real forensics competition as we are likely to see on prime-time television.
That means an objective observer could score the debate the way it is done on the competitive level. When we did things the old fashioned way, the index cards were our currency. Everything we said had to be backed up by evidence. So winning or losing was decided before the competition began.
Judges would take note of each position, the supporting data and assess which side did the best job of presenting the facts which supported their case.
Tuesday night, both candidates did a good job of researching the opponents past records and public positions. Each began by creating a premise on why they would be the best candidate and why the opponent would not.
Based on classical debate techniques, Brown did a better job of rebutting the major points of Whitman and presented several key arguments which she never addressed.
She had spent $100 million in the past six months labelling Brown’s 40 years in office as a failure, an argument she repeated.
He addressed some of the direct points, but pulled out a clincher at the end by noting that Howard Jarvis, the hero of the right wing for pushing Proposition 13, had supported him for re-election during his first stint as governor.
Brown also targeted Whitman’s proposal for the revocation of capital gains taxes as something that would take away $5 billion to $11 billion in revenue. She never responded to that assertion.
The Democrat went on the offensive by attacking the major raison d’etre of Whitman’s campaign–that as a successful business leader and outsider, she could change Sacramento.
He merely noted that current Gov. Arnold Schwarznegger had said the same thing, with the resultant current mess. Once again, she did not rebut it.
Think of it like a high school wrestling match. Both competitors can hold each other to a standoff, until one gains an advantage. That advantage, no matter how brief, determines the winner.
Whitman hammered Brown repeatedly on Oakland schools, using clippings that he had campaigned as the “education mayor” and had gained the right to appoint some school board members.
Towards the end, Brown responded that he had helped the system grow from three charter schools to 21 and had started two charters himself.
She didn’t have an answer.
It’s been clear for several months that Brown had been counting on the debate to counteract the advertising carpet bombing. On Tuesday, his bet paid off.