Senate Debate: Kamala Harris Wins By Not Losing


kamaladebateThe entertainment highlights from last night’s U.S. Senate debate in Stockton: Tom Del Beccaro attacked Kamala Harris for being a squish on crime. Ron Unz blamed Pete Wilson for wrecking California’s Republican Party. Duf Sundheim seemed precariously close to a James Stockdale moment. Loretta Sanchez sounded like she’d been sucking on a helium balloon moments before the event started.

In the end, however, it was a genteel and subdued affair, with no memorable moments, candidate breakthroughs or big mistakes, and none of the five rivals said much they haven’t already said before. In other words, nothing changed, which means that Attorney General Harris remains the odds-on favorite to finish first in the June 7 primary, with Sanchez still positioned to make it an all-Democratic run-off in November.

Here’s a wrap on how the wannabes did:

Kamala Harris. Harris is infuriatingly cautious, if not craven, constantly deflecting even the most non-threatening questions with evasive platitudes: What should government do about income inequality? “No question, it’s a big issue.” Has Obama done enough on terrorism? “It is a very real issue.” Immigration? “It’s the most front and center human and civil rights issue of our time.” The thought of listening to this kind of blather for six or 12 years (our actuarial odds don’t extend much past that) makes the notion of watching grass grow seem like Carnival in Rio. Still, she’s by far the class act in the field – lucid, adept and serious-minded if still under-informed about national issues. She lacks the fire of the retiring Barbara Boxer and the earnest depth of Dianne Feinstein but in this field, she looks more like a U.S. Senator than anyone.

sanchezdebateLoretta Sanchez. Perhaps it’s because she’s represented Disneyland for all these years that the two-decade Congress member vocalizes like some squeaky denizen of the forest in a remake of Sleeping Beauty. Over the years, we’ve had at least one or two conversations in which she was reasonably coherent, instead of stringing together non sequiturs, which is what she mostly did last night: What will you do to break gridlock in Washington? “I’m not the status quo, I’ve been changing the Congress for 20 years.” Um, okay. Her biggest problem is her message, which boils down to me, me, me. I’m on the Homeland Security Committee, I’m on the military committee, I’m an expert on national security, yadda, yadda, yadda. Guess that’s why things are so swell inside the Beltway, Loretta, and thank you for that. Still, Sanchez is the only one besides Harris who’ll be able to afford to air any advertising before the primary, and with three GOPers cutting up the Republican vote, she should make the playoffs, after which anything can happen.

Tom-Del-BeccaroTom Del Beccaro. We’re no fans of the loathsome former Republican Party chairman, but he did an excellent job last night of staking out a clear base among the most conservative and libertarian elements of the party. He wisely kept contrasting himself to the rest of the field – “I’m different than everyone else,” began his answers to a host of questions – even though his proposals reeked of failed Reagan-era policies – government is the problem, not the solution; the power of markets will spur untrammeled economic growth that will trickle down to the masses; our militaristic foreign policy should be based on “moral clarity.” Del Becarro is slick to the point of oleaginous, but he speaks directly to the GOP right wing and if any of them bothered to tune in last night, he did himself a lot of good.

dufsundheimDuf Sundheim. Full disclosure: we really like Sundheim because he’s open-minded, thoughtful and fair, and harkens back to the days of smart moderate Republicans like George Shultz, Ken Maddy and Pete Wilson. But we couldn’t quite figure out what he was doing last night: editorial page editor and debate panelist John Diaz of the Chronicle, which co-sponsored the debate, nailed him with a question noting his liberal positions on issues from guns to gay marriage – “Why are you a Republican?” – and Sundheim kept making odd historic references – the election of 1860 and Harry Truman’s work on the U.N. with Senator Arthur H. Vanderberg – when he was wasn’t channeling Chris Christie by suggesting visa holders should be tracked like Fed-Ex packages, or referring to his wife, which he did at least three times, to the point that we ended the night knowing far more about her than him. It all was enough to put us in mind of Admiral James Stockdale, Ross Perot’s 1992 running mate, who famously opened his debate against Al Gore by asking, “Who am I, why am I here?”

ronunzRon Unz. If we were in a focus group, listening to a politician we didn’t know stake the positions on key issues that Unz took last night, arguing them with considerable clarity and force, we would be most impressed and might likely support the guy. Alas, we not only know Unz, but also recall his signal political achievement is the divisive Proposition 227 in 1998, which cut back bilingual education in the state; worse, he admitted on the stage that the only reason he got into the Senate race was to champion his opposition to an effort in the Legislature to undo the measure. Still, Unz’s stances in the debate – for an increased federal minimum wage, against the bail-out and subsidies for Wall Street, cutting salaries for UC and CSU bureaucrats to reduce tuition, bashing the Bush Iraq war as the original sin that led to widespread terrorism, legalizing drugs – seemed to capture the current political zeitgeist better than anyone else who showed up.

diazMedia matters: Excellent work by our old pal Diaz, who politely but firmly followed up with several candidates who tried to ignore his original questions, and strongly represented his colleagues in the newspaper trade amid a shifting cast of KCRA talking heads, all of whom seemed to be directly imported from happy talk morning shows.

Our big beef with the Chron was that it tried to stiff anybody who wanted to watch the live stream on their website for the cost of a digital subscription, a cheesy ploy not mentioned in Joe Garofoli’s ballyhooing of the  webcast in his debate advance, which carried a link to it. Kudos to KCRA for providing a free and robust online version for voters in markets that didn’t get the broadcast, most especially those in the politically crucial precincts of Santa Barbara, which were blacked out from the broadcast.

Here’s the Calbuzz Twitter feed (slightly edited) in reverse order:

Duf says we’re losing faith in future and politics — end high-speed rail, fix water, keep you safe — let’s shake things up

Loretta voted against Iraq war, bailout, Patriot Act — changed policy on charging wounded soldiers for meals — emotional ending

Unz says it’s going to be difficult for Republican to win — blames Pete Wilson on immigration — if he’s elected min wage wins

Hopefully Garofoli will analyze why @sactotrixie: Once again del Becarro fails to thank @sfchronicle for hosting debate.

Harris proud daughter of CA, challenges are opportunities, fought banks, homeowner rights, defend samesex couples, vs oil

DelBecc says government isn’t the answer to everything — says others want to use govt — he’s for flat tax, JFK and Reagan

Duf agrees with Harris that we need to keep guns away from criminals — says Harris hasn’t done that — she says she has

Harris defends herself on smart on crime — also that she supports a woman’s right to choose (mentioned earlier)

DelBecc says law abiding citizens owning guns is not the problem — reducing crime is key — hits Harris on SF case

Harris says we should be smarter on crime — not tough or weak

Harris backs Feinstein on guns, assault weapons, background checks — reasonable controls — war on drugs a failure

Unz doesn’t think gun control makes much diff on crime — says drug policy more imp on crime — don’t be carried by rhetoric

Sanchez says he goes over time limits cuz she has so much to say cuz she’s the one with experience. Remove MJ from sked 1

Why Kamala not get a response to Del B attack over Planned Parenthood?

DelBecc won’t say he’s comfortable with Trump as presidential nominee

DelBecc says Harris shouldn’t investigate Planned Parenthood cause she a supporter. Fair point.

Harris says she’s a strong leader. Gosh.

Why take you seriously, Unz? Because Sacto is trying to undo his English-only initiative. And he’s pissed.

Sanchez says no one has refuted her estimate of worldwide Muslims who support caliphate

Sanchez, you’ve offended native Americans, Muslims, Vietnamese — she says it’s all out of context — says she’s real people

Why are you a Republican, Duf? “I’m not a blind Republican” — not working for McConnell, working for you

Harris says immigration is fundamental civil rights issue — comes out squarely for pathway to citizenship; Loretta didn’t

Unz seems to think native-born Americans would pick fruit for minimum wage

After Loretta says she’s been to meetings, Unz says illegal imm isn’t that big a problem but higher wages is the best answer

Loretta for family values…doesn’t mention pathway to citizenship. Duf says Loretta has skipped Homeland meetings.

Duf’s for a high-tech wall. If we can track packages, should be able to track people. Perm legal status for undocumented

DelBecc on immigration: it’s a national security concern, visa reform needed — we could stop 90,000 troops on the border

Unz says Obama is wrong-headed, should be working with Russians and Syrians to defeat ISIS. Bush was even worse.

Sanchez says she would use everything before going to war. She says BHO is not doing everything he could.

Loretta says it’s easy to talk about national security without 20 yrs experience like her — military toolbox too easy

Duf says Obama falls short. He’d have long-term strategy

DelBecc says BHO not doing all he can — should call them Islamic terrorists, help our allies, shouldn’t let ISIS have land

Is Obama on the right track, Diaz repeats. “There are many tracks,” Kamala replies. Is he doing everything? Kama equivocates

Harris says we have to lead with our values internationally — Syria, Iraq, Libya — nothing about Obama

Diaz asks if Obama is doing everything to prevent terrorism at home. Harris says SanBerdu was tragic. It’s a very real issue. Duh.

Loretta: more training for cosmetologists, starting with my hairdresser

Sanchez says technology is key to cutting costs at community college. WTF??

Loretta says too much focus on 4-year college – “I want my hairdresser to do a good job each and every time!”

If you want to see something get really expensive, make it free, says Duf. Cut costs.

DelBecc opposes govt lowering costs for college. Stop subsidizing colleges.

Harris wants free comm coll, increase Pell Grants, crack down on predatory private colleges.

Unz says cut state tuitions — too many administrators — have to cut costs, bureaucracy, lower tuition — avoids free coll

Duf compares income disparity to slavery — says min wage increase will lead us down the wrong road — better to create jobs

Economic growth is key to reducing income disparity, says DelBec — others want Govt solution and Govt can’t solve everythng

Inc disparity is a big issue, Harris sez. Eureka! Min wage, affects women most, affordable childcare, pre-k, family leave, student aid

Unz cites income inequality — glad for incr in min wage. Outrageous benefits to financial elite. Would have blocked bailout

Santa Barbara focus group says so far Diaz looks most like a Senator

Who are you most concerned with, Diaz asks — Loretta talks about education, transportation, national security

Del Beccaro thanks UOP and KCRA snubs Chron – intentional dis or simple incompetence?

DelBecc says source of division is that government is at the center of it — whatever that means

Harris says she’s worked across party lines to get things done.

Unz cites his 12,000-word essay on raising minimum wage. 12,000 words! Now central to Democratic agenda — says GOP cand

“I’m not the status quo,” Loretta says, then cites her status quo credentials and says she can “shape the debate”

Duf says his background as mediator would serve him in getting something done in Congress.

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There are 2 comments for this post

  1. avatar richardwinger says:

    This is a very good column, but I quibble with calling the November election a “runoff.” It is not a “runoff.” A “runoff” is only held when no one gets a majority in the first round. But in California, the June event never elects anyone, even if they get 100% of the vote in June. The only election is in November. This is because federal law, since 1872, tells the states to hold congressional elections in November, and if a state wants a runoff, it has to be after November. The only 2 states with congressional runoffs are Georgia (held in January of the next year), and Louisiana (held in December).

  2. avatar GaryRJP64 says:

    California, the greatest state in the Union, and THIS is the best we can do for candidates?

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