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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.