Thursday, September 25th, 2003


The first, and likely, only debate of the top 5 candidates in the race turned into a demolition derby between The Hummer and The Hybrid.

Arianna played anti-heroine–getting all up in the candidates faces. Arnie showed his inner macho airhead by taking Arianna’s bait, and brutalized her all night with consultant-tested one-liners and one apparently off-the-cuff retort that could cost him all the Democratic soccer moms Maria has been diligently trying to assemble for him.

From the start, Arianna baited Arnie and Cruz with zingers regarding their parties’ priorities. As the candidates sparred over worker’s compensation, Huffington said, “This is the two parties that brought us the broken worker’s comp system.” The difference was in how the two took the bait. Cruz agreed with Arianna that the Dems were complicit and laid out specific faults with previous proposals. Arnie called Democratic maneuvering “pre-election bogus” and “trickery”. The split defined the evening–Arnie was vague and vituperative, Cruz was collected, even deferential.

When Arianna laid out her proposal to close the budget gap by closing corporate tax loopholes, Arnie responded with a canned one-liner: “Your personal tax income tax has the biggest loophole–I can drive my Hummers through it.” Arianna pointed out that Arnie’s lines had been rehearsed, and reported in a debate preview by the New York Times.

The debate reached its tit-for-tat high (or low) in an exchange over

tax policy:

HUFFINGTON:…But I want to return to something very important because the people of California need somebody who is going to fight the Bush administration for that, because you know what? Let me just tell you the facts, let me tell you the facts. The repeal of the estate tax alone is costing us over $3 billion.

MODERATOR: We’re starting the clock. Two more minutes left on this. Two more minutes on the budget.

HUFFINGTON: Right, well there’s a huge connection between our budgetary problems here and the decisions made in Washington. And we need somebody who’s going to fight for properly funded mandates — whether it’s on education or in health care — and who’s going to fight the administration when it’s completely costing us jobs? It’s completely hypocritical of Arnold to come here…

SCHWARZENEGGER: Arianna, we’re talking about the car tax right now and not about education.

HUFFINGTON: Let me finish. Let me finish. Let me finish. You know, this is completely impolite and we know this is how you treat women and we know that, but not right now.

MODERATOR: On that point, excuse me, excuse me, excuse me. Candidates please, let me take control of this for a moment. I’m going to decide it is my privilege as moderator that that was a direct and personal attack on Mr. Schwarzenegger, so would you respond?

SCHWARZENEGGER: I would like to say that I just realized that I have a perfect part for you in ‘Terminator 4.’ That’s it.

Today’s LA Times reports that Huffington believes the scene Arnie was referring to is one in which he stuffs a female robot’s face down a toilet. Whoa. Where’s C. Delores Tucker when you really need her?

You can bet the Dems will be taking up Arianna’s cause in the next two weeks with fervor. If Arianna wants to be around in 2008, she’ll parlay this clout to play ball with the Dems. The possibilities that could result from Arianna joining with a coalition of folks of color and progressives to re-energize the left wing of the Democratic Party are actually pretty mind-boggling.

By contrast, Tom McClintock and Peter Camejo continued to hammer away at their points. They were both sharp and informed, but last night turned out not to be about positions. If the recall is all about entertainment, they wrote themselves out of the storyline. It’s not likely that either will make any more significant gains in their polling. McClintock’s pro-life position, dropped almost surreptitiously in his closing, combined with his bug-eyed seriousness about himself couldn’t have played well anywhere but deep O.C. Camejo is brilliant, earnest, and correct–but as a candidate, he is plagued by a crippling blandness. He has made no myth of himself, and his laser-like policy focus leave nothing to an electorate’s imagination. In this hypermedia bubble, both disappear.

As far as the leaders in the yes-recall race, Arnie stands to lose the most. Those hoping for specifics got platitudes, those hoping for compassion got vagaries, those hoping for intelligence got one-liners. No matter how dumb pundits think the electorate is, the main question most have about Arnie is, wouldn’t we prefer him on-screen than in Sacramento? At some point, the charisma and comedy has to give way to a certain discipline and rigor. It did not happen last night.

Cruz played the background in the Arianna and Arnie thing, which gave him an advantage. It made him look sober, serious, a governor-in-training. But it did not dispel the major doubts that have been raised about his interests. By looking like the responsible one, he failed to distinguish himself as anything other than what he is: a party politician, a nod to the status quo. If he did a few photo opps in which he showed up at backyard BBQs in shorts with a Tecate in hand, now that might be something. Hard to do the man of the people thing when you’re buttoned-down everyday and fighting out your campaign contributions in court.

Which raises the question, of course, why vote for the recall in the first place then? Gray’s ongoing act of contrition may actually work, if for no other reason than the Battle Royale actually looks more devilish than the alternative.

A transcript of the debate is here.

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