Was Gray Davis mentioned even once in last night's California gubernatorial debate? I didn't hear his name. As Arnold Schwarzenegger and Arianna Huffington swapped immature gibes, viewers of the debate may have wondered: What is this recall about, again?
Like a forgettable Crossfire episode, the debate consisted mainly of tedious cross-talk and the usual mindless slogans. Host Stan Statham, for no apparent reason, gushed at the end of the debate that all five candidates were "fine people," "excellent," and full of "courage." Apparently he wasn't kidding earlier in the debate when he said, "I'm going to have to lower my meds..."
A debate dominated by the undignified bickering and grade-school pot shots of Arianna Huffington and Arnold Schwarzenegger isn't likely to inspire confidence in Californians that the recall will remedy the state's crisis.
Why Schwarzenegger took the unserious Arianna Huffington so seriously isn't clear. He certainly didn't show the gentlemanly touch of Ronald Reagan, who would never have bothered to descend to the level of a hideous opportunist like Huffington. Schwarzenegger's reliance on canned cheap shots -- "I just realized that I have a perfect part for you in Terminator 4," he said to Huffington -- led the host to say at one point, "Ladies and gentlemen, this is not Comedy Central."
Schwarzenegger enjoyed his juvenile jousting with Huffington enough to say at a press conference afterwards that he and Huffington could travel as a "comedy team." Schwarzenegger has undeniable comic gifts, as seen when he ends practically every other sentence with the phrase, "...and all those kind of things."
Schwarzenegger's performance was more superficial than serious. He never strays too far from his cliches, and when in doubt repeats a few words he likes over and over again, such as "gone, gone, gone." But since he didn't do anything fatal, his performance will be rated by establishment Republicans as a stunning success.
Cruz Bustamante was strangely impassive, even when Schwarzenegger launched into an unprovoked attack upon his professional career. Schwarzenegger, after bragging about his business acumen, browbeat Bustamante for having never "run a business," for having only signed the back of checks, not the front of them. When Schwarzenegger attacked Bustamante for not buying "textbooks" for California schoolchildren -- the Republican candidate apparently doesn't think the Democrats are spending enough on public education -- Bustamante sarcastically mumbled, "Yes, Arnold...Yes, Arnold."
Bustamante referred to the recall as a "terrible idea," and then asked for Californians' votes -- yet another jokey message that may leave Californians too perplexed to eject Davis from office.
The anticipated dispute between Schwarzenegger and Tom McClintock never materialized. The opportunity never really arose, since Arianna Huffington was usually hogging the mike.
McClintock was sober and highly knowledgeable. "I agree with Tom," was frequently said by almost all of the candidates. But since he wasn't in Terminator 3 he can't be taken seriously as a potential winner, according to the Republican establishment. One California GOP activist told me that the state's Republican party apparatus is in "freak-out mode" and will do anything at this point to get a "cheap victory." "They have refused to take this seriously," he said. "They prefer a silly quick-fix."
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