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The Battle of Brentwood

Never mind the backlash against the driver’s-license bill. If Arnold and Arianna take their show on the road, the entire state will soon vote to restrict immigration.

Wednesday night’s gubernatorial-candidate debate was as raucous as the usual debate is cautious, and for reasons entirely peculiar to the dynamics of the recall. In a normal election, the two candidates on the stage are really running for governor. Last night in Sacramento, there were five candidates on the stage, the recall being a process that omits a primary election that pre-sorts the final field. Two of those candidates — Arianna Huffington and Peter Camejo — weren’t really running for governor at all, but rather being accorded a soapbox the likes of which they’ve not had before and will never have again.

Thus freed from any illusion that she had to persuade a significant segment of the California electorate to vote for her, Arianna transformed herself into something we don’t normally see in a debate between candidates who actually think they can win. She was an attack dog, pure and simple, and Arnold was her quarry.

In truth, scoring points off Arnold isn’t the most arduous of chores. Camejo, Arianna and the Cruzer each confronted head-on the Schwarzenegger mantra that has become the Big Lie of this campaign: that California has, in Arnold’s words, “the worst business climate in the nation.” The claim is preposterous on its face; the disappearance of manufacturing jobs has so decimated the industrial Midwest and the textile South that the Bush people are now fretting about losing not just Ohio but perhaps even a Carolina.

But by hectoring Schwarzenegger so relentlessly, Arianna unleashed Arnold the lumbering bear. She forced Arnold to banter, to bare his boorish charm, to recite his arthritic comebacks — raising the specter of a Schwarzenegger governorship with dialogue as brutally lame as that in his pictures. And when he’s not speaking in one-liners that don’t zing, Arnold speaks in triplets. “We tax, tax, tax,” he said, “and the jobs are gone, gone, gone.” It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Arnold learned economics by reading the Child’s Guide to Milton Friedman.

Actually, Arnold’s economics are entirely at odds with what is otherwise his impulse toward social decency. Indeed, it’s Arnold, not the more cynical George W. Bush, who seems the genuine compassionate conservative, and last night’s debate made clear how completely that conservatism cancels that compassion.

Asked, for instance, how he stood on providing health care to children of illegal immigrants, Arnold called for an expansion of the Healthy Families program. Later, he deplored the tuition hikes at the state’s public universities and colleges. But if Healthy Families has not been expanded more, and tuitions everywhere raised, it is because the Republicans in the Legislature chose to inflict those costs on California’s young people rather than raise taxes on the wealthiest Californians — which is Schwarzenegger’s position, too. Similarly, Schwarzenegger’s opposition to Senate Bill 2, the mandate on large and midsize employers to provide health insurance for their workers, means he opposes an extension of health coverage to roughly 500,000 children of working-poor families in the state. Of the five candidates on the stage, it’s Arnold who has the program that is almost entirely self-negating.

Then again, while Bustamante and Camejo were affirming SB2, Arianna was humphing her opposition to it as well, calling it “half-baked” for falling short of Sheila Kuehl’s single-payer bill. But as Kuehl herself acknowledges, SB2 was the best that could come out of the Legislature this year. Arianna was making the perfect the enemy of the good — a critique that could be extended to the entirety of her campaign. Except that last night, she was plainly less interested in helping herself than she was in taking Arnold down — which means, in helping the dynamic duo of Gray and Cruz.

Cruz went through the debate plainly determined not to mix it up. Gravitas may be beyond him, but decorum is not, and he surely helped himself with voters who want a governor who is above all well-behaved. There are moments — as in his affirmation of the value of immigrants to American society — when Cruz actually achieves a quiet eloquence. For most of last night, however, he settled for an almost vegetative dignity.

He also ducked a bullet. In earlier debates, Arianna skewered Cruz for his dependence on casino money, but last night was Arnold’s turn in the shooting gallery. Thus unassailed, Cruz was able to make the case for mainstream Democratic solutions (e.g., raising taxes on the rich) without undue hectoring. For his part, Camejo made the case for more social-democratic solutions — persuasively when he stayed on topic, though he had a distressing tendency to veer into such arcana such as reforming the 1937 pension act. Camejo couldn’t have been that good a Trotskyist; he strays off message too much.

As he has in past debates, McClintock clearly articulated the agenda of the California right on social and economic issues both (though he has never yet explained that getting rid of “duplicative” bureaucracies means scrapping coastal protections and workplace inspections). His performance was notable for his unwillingness to attack Schwarzenegger, and his eagerness to attack Pete Wilson, whose $7 billion tax hike to close the early-’90s budget deficit McClintock excoriated twice.

The polling will soon tell us whether last night’s debate moved any votes; my guess is that Bustamante and Schwarzenegger shored up the support they already had without winning significantly more. McClintock’s nostalgiacs may yet drift toward Arnold as Election Day draws nigh, but I doubt that process was sped by anything that happened last night.

As for Davis, last night’s slap-fest may give some sobersided independents one more reason to oppose the recall. My sense, though, is that the governor’s fate, and the state’s, will be determined here in Los Angeles over the next 12 days as labor tries to persuade Latinos — the lagging indicator in the anti-recall universe — that keeping Gray is a smarter move than elevating Cruz. The battle of Brentwood is over; the action now moves to the San Gabriel Valley.


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