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SACRAMENTO — Democrats owe Arianna Huffington a handsome
debt for her performance at the Great Gubernatorial Debate. If she hadn’t been
here and had she not kept Arnold Schwarzenegger tied up in relentless guerrilla
crossfire, the Terminator would have totally flattened the staggeringly hapless
Cruz Bustamante.

The lieutenant governor served himself up like a 200-pound
Chinese meal. A half-hour after the debate I couldn’t remember a single
complete sentence Cruz might have uttered. I imagine some Democrats, however,
did notice his rather tepid opposition to the recall itself and his pointed
refusal to associate himself with Governor Davis.

Nor do I have much doubt that Arianna’s labors and
Bustamante’s omissions will go unrequited and that way too many Democrats — and
even self-styled progressives — are still planning to take the dive for Cruz in
10 days. The fact that Huffington was the only candidate who actually laid out
a coherent progressive vision — in her admirable and uncompromising closing
statement — will be soundly ignored by legions of liberals who constantly claim
they want reform and truly reformist candidates, but then reliably and
obediently vote for Big Money human Laundromats like Davis and Bustamante.

But kudos anyway to Arianna for drawing the first blood
from Arnold during this campaign. He was clearly fearful of her debating
strengths and had, evidently, rehearsed cutting her off and interrupting at
every chance. Fair enough, this ain’t badminton. But Arnold let himself get
rattled by the Brentwood Populist when she accused him of bullying her as a
woman. He took the bait and spewed out that one line that could haunt him in
the coming days — that he had a special role ready for Arianna in Terminator
4
. After his well-publicized boasting to Entertainment Weekly how it
was his idea in Terminator 3
to jam his female rival’s head into a toilet, the retort will not exactly
elevate Arnold’s standing among women who might already have some reservations
about his attitudes.

Arianna didn’t leave the arena unscathed. She got
flustered and far too defensive when Arnold took a swipe at her over her income
taxes. With Cruz apparently suffering from his usual narcolepsy, and the
excessively polite Green Party candidate, Peter Camejo, seemingly bent on
playing patty-cake onstage, the job of spicing up the debate fell inordinately
on Arianna’s shoulders. It’s a task she relished, and she will certainly pay a
political price, taking a portion of media heat for being too much a provocateur.

Arnold’s overall rating falls somewhere in the B–/C+ range
— no higher. Apart from the slip-up with Arianna, he experienced no meltdown.
His tone remained far too cocky and arrogant. His style is way too much that of
a blaring foghorn, a sustained barrage of run-on sentences “and all those kind
of things,” as he’s inclined to say, that intentionally leaves little room for
questions, clarifications or two-way exchanges.

But Arnold proved himself to be at least as intelligent
and as eloquent as, say, the president of the United States — which in American
politics, it seems, is good enough. But mostly, I found Arnold to be a one-note
act. Whether it was about health care or the budget or taxes, he had the same
answer: “Protect business.” His obsessiveness with promoting a
“business-friendly climate” is hardly the stuff of the sort of maverick,
independent campaign he once promised. Instead, it’s boilerplate country-club
Republicanism rather consistent with the millions he’s raked in in corporate
contributions — a greedy practice he also originally vowed to eschew.

And this rather turns the recall on its head. This episode
in California history has resonated deeply with the electorate’s disgust toward
an unresponsive and captive political system. I doubt many voters wake up in
the morning and, looking into the bathroom mirror, ask themselves how the
business climate is gonna be today. They’d rather know if they can pay
university tuition for their kids, if they’re going to get anything back for
the taxes they pay and how breathable the air might be.

Arnold may have well guaranteed his overall viability, but
I find it doubtful that he much expanded his base of support. His campaign is
still too much about him, and not enough about an angry electorate.

And it was nice to see Tom McClintock. Too bad the guy’s
got such Neanderthal social views, a pity that he would privatize everything in
sight, as he is obviously a principled and passionate straight shooter who
couldn’t give a damn about polls or popularity contests — a rare breed up here
in the state capital. He’s also eating up 15 percent or so of the Republican
vote — precisely the chunk that Arnold needs to give him a comfortable margin
over Cruz. The GOP establishment had cranked up the pressure on McClintock to
withdraw in the past week. The steely state senator claims he’ll never say die.
Yet, he didn’t so much as lay a glove on Arnold, and vice versa, as the two
Republicans carried out an exquisite minuet that avoided any clashes.

Suspicions can now only be heightened that McClintock’s
docility is a harbinger of an eventual ceding to Schwarzenegger. The only
alternative theory is that McClintock is in for the duration, that he
consciously intends to split the GOP vote, sink Schwarzenegger and leave himself
well-positioned as the leading Republican candidate for the 2006 contest for
governor. The only wrinkle in that scenario is that if McClintock spoils Arnold
and helps elect Cruz or retain Davis, there’s gonna be a whole lot of
pissed-off Republicans gunning for him. (Once again, Cruz proved himself to be
the champion evader of the press. He slunk away after the debate without taking
one question from the media. Shame on the coward, or maybe he had to rush to
the bank to make an after-hours deposit of Indian money.)

 

The really good news is how much genuine voter
excitement and engagement the debate produced. The scene here on the Sacramento
State University campus crackled with carnival fervor. But carnival in the
positive sense — that somehow, really for the first time in my lifetime, the
usually dreary business of state politics actually mattered in the lives of
ordinary people. Live, almost wall-to-wall coverage carried the debate in every
TV market in the state as well as nationwide on CNN. More than 400 reporters
from around the world crowded into the debate media rooms, and a long line of
remote-broadcast tents brightly blossomed in the campus parking lot. Politics
should always look like this, and the attention garnered by the face-off ought
to once and for all demolish the canard that this recall election is somehow a
dirty, illegitimate subversion of the “normal political process.”

One final note: Precisely with this attendant level of
excitement around the debate, with two-thirds of likely voters saying that its
outcome would meaningfully influence their vote, we all deserved a moderator
more competent than the bizarre Stan Statham. Like a late-night carpet-company
commercial starring the boss’s girlfriend, the debate sponsor, the California
Broadcasters Association, let its goofy and confused chief executive run the
panel. Erratic, unfair, at once ineffective and too interventionist, and at all
times way above his head, Statham at least admitted at one point that he was
getting “dizzy.” No kidding! A former GOP assemblyman who ran an unsuccessful
campaign for lieutenant governor on a program of dividing California up into
three separate states, Statham should have been last on the list to chair such
a crucial debate.