Saturday, February 06, 2010

An enjoyable debate

I took a half-day off on Thursday in order to attend a debate between two political titans. On the Left was former California Speaker of the Assembly
and San Francisco Mayor, Willie Brown. On the Right (more like center-right) was political pollster Frank Luntz. They were at the Crest Theater, which is located in downtown Sacramento on K Street as a part of a debate series that is being put on by Sacramento Mayor, Kevin Johnson. There really was no specific theme in the debate between Brown and Luntz; it was a basic, no-holds-barred free-for-all on any and all topics of the day. The moderator was Eric Hogue, a local radio talk show host who helms a noontime call-in show on 1380 KTKZ in Sacramento.

The Crest Theater is a Sacramento landmark that harkens back to another time. It retains much of its golden-age-of-theater art deco-esque charm while usually showing independent movies that aren't big enough for mass release. I walked down some stairs to a smaller theater in a sub-level of the building where approximately 180 seats awaited a final audience that I estimated at about maybe 120. On the raised stage was a podium for the moderator and two leather-backed chairs facing each other at an oblique angle like you see on Jay Leno's 10pm show that was recently axed. I chose a seat about 30 feet away and settled in to wait for the showdown.

About 10 minutes before the debate was to begin, Mayor Kevin Johnson and a small entourage of staffers walked into the theater headed over to shoot the breeze with Eric Hogue, who had made no bones about the fact that he had supported Johnson over the incumbent Mayor, Heather Fargo, in the 2008 election. Johnson is of course the former NBA star who spent most of his years with the Phoenix Suns, but he is a Sacramento native.

The debate began around 1:30pm with some short remarks by Mayor Johnson, who then turned the microphone over to Eric Hogue. Mr. Hogue introduced the two debate participants, beginning with Willie Brown. Brown is a legend in California politics. As a 31-year Democrat member of the California state Assembly, he consolidated quite a bit of power during his almost 15 years as Speaker of that same Assembly. I imagine he would still be in the Assembly had not term limits been imposed on California political offices. I would suffice to say that Brown's headlock on power in this state was one of the main reasons that Californians called for term limits in the first place. Brown is one of those larger than life figures to whom nothing seems to stick, no matter how corrupt he might seem. He is known to be an impeccable dresser, and he did not disappoint this day. He was dressed in a gray, silky-looking suit, complete with vest, with a white dress shirt and cufflinks, and blackish tie. His outfit was topped off with a black handkerchief fancily placed in his coat pocket, and several gold rings on various fingers. During the debate, Brown was a smooth and eloquent talker who was gracious at every turn.

Then Frank Luntz walked up to the stage. His hair gave me the impression he had just rolled out of bed; he was wearing a disheveled white button up shirt with no tie, along with an an ordinary-looking pair of brown pants. Then there were the shoes: a pair of neon green, orange, and black tennis shoes. During the debate, Luntz was hilarious with his off-beat humor, and his brusque New England demeanor - he is from Connecticut - came out on several occasions as he dropped a couple S- and F-bombs.

What struck me funny is that many people have a stereotypical view of conservatives and Republicans being slick corporate fat cats, while liberals and Democrats are salt-of-the-earth working-class people. Yet at this event, it was the liberal Democrat in the the $2,000 suit and the Republican who looked liked Joe-Schmo. This point was driven home when during the debate, Frank Luntz took a second to comment on Willie Brown's cufflinks: "Your cufflinks cost more than my entire wardrobe. Look at those things!"

The first answers from Brown and Luntz that were of any consequence had to do with questions of exercising power. Not surprisingly, Willie Brown spoke of the importance of holding on to and expanding power. He said that he didn't believe in a certain percentage of a majority vote being necessary for a "mandate." To Brown, it doesn't matter if he got 50.1% of the vote - HE WON, and he would govern as if he had received a clear mandate, because to him, winning - no matter by what margin - is mandate enough. To these statements, Luntz exclaimed, "You're scaring the shit out of me right now." Luntz stated that it is not the job of politicians to consolidate power, and that voters should decide how much power our elected leaders have; not the leaders themselves.

There was much discussion about the role of voters in politics, and how they affect the behavior of politicians. Willie Brown summed it up best with a short story of the effect of the famous Prop 13, which was passed in 1978 and put a cap on property taxes on California residences. He said that on Monday, then-Governor Jerry Brown opposed Prop 13, but by Wednesday, he had written Prop 13. What had happened to change his stance? The election on Tuesday!

Brown was obviously against the voter initiatives and propositions, especially since just such an initiative - Proposition 140 in 1990 - had knocked him out of his seat of power in the Assembly. He referred to people who work to get these initiatives on the ballots as "nitwits." Further, he "can guarantee" that the people who sign the petitions that make the initiatives eligible to be on the ballot have not read the legislation they are supporting.

Frank Luntz had a pretty damning riposte to Brown's statement by asking Brown if elected legislators are any better at reading legislation; such as, how many members of Congress had actually read the 2,000+ page Health Care Reform (ObamaCare) legislation before it came to a vote?

The conversation then steered away from California politics and toward national politics - especially the gubernatorial and congressional races in Virginia, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Illinois, and what can be read from the tea leaves regarding how these elections can give a preview of what might happen this November.

Willie Brown first expressed his belief that Jon Corzine of New Jersey had left the Senate to become New Jersey's governor with the intention of putting some executive experience on his resume' with an eye toward an eventual run at the White House. Well, that's not gonna happen. He then regurgitated a common left-wing talking point that the Dem losses in VA, NJ, and MA were more because of the lack of quality of the Dem candidates rather than voter anger at the Democrat message. Nevertheless, Brown then conceded that even Obama's old Senate seat in Illinois is in danger of being taken by the Republican candidate in November.

Brown and Luntz both agreed that the quality of presidential candidates in the last few cycles has been horrible. Luntz pointed out that John Kerry looked like the tree from the Wizard of Oz that threw apples at Dorothy, and he cracked a joke that the infamous "Don't taze me, Bro!" guy - who was tasered by police at a Kerry appearance - "was the first person ever electrified by a Kerry speech."

Both Brown and Luntz had some particularly insightful words about the current fight over health care in Congress.

Brown believes that Obama improperly punted the health care issue to Congress, and let the ideological junkyard dogs bite off too much. Brown said that had he been in Obama's place, he would have picked three or four items from the health care wish list, and moved them one at a time - as separate bills - through Congress. This was a rather candid statement: he was essentially admitting that the Democrats should have deceived the American people by staying under the radar and enacting their agenda through stealth tactics, instead of overplaying their hand and bringing on the ire of the Tea Party movement.

Luntz made his position very clear; clear enough that I can actually quote him directly:
To the Republicans in this room: understand that the American people do want health care reform.

To the Democrats in this room: understand that the American people do not want what Congress is trying to pass.
During a short audience Q&A, a California state legislator - I think it might have been State Senator Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) - asked Brown and Luntz about immigration policy. I am guessing it was Cedillo because the man is obsessed with immigration policy. Luntz had a brilliant response to the question. He said that the United States should have very tall fences, but very wide gates. By that he meant that we should most certainly have a mechanism in place for legal immigration, but we should absolutely crack down upon and prevent illegal immigration. He repeated the truism that an immigrant coming to this country should not make his or her very first act in coming here a violation of our laws.

There were other topics and discussions for which I either didn't have the time to take proper notes, or I left out of this post for brevity's sake. I sure did enjoy the discussion between Frank Luntz and Willie Brown, even though there were positions taken by both men with which I did not agree.

After I stepped out of the Crest and back onto K Street, I topped off my afternoon by grabbing a pale ale and some deep-fried calamari strips with chipotle tartar sauce at the Pyramid Alehouse just a few doors down. Uh, people at Pyramid, you can contact me anytime so I can tell you where to mail my promotion fee.

Good Day to You, Sir


Anonymous said...

Two sad thoughts about your post: One - It was in the afternoon, and few people could attend. Two - There should have been 1200 or 12,000 people there instead of 120.I enjoy Frank Luntz on TV. He seems to be fair to both sides with his poll analyses.


Polski3 said...

Debate? Civil behavior? Just WHERE did this happen? :-)

I guess neither mentioned anything about education?

Law and Order Teacher said...

I envy you in being present at this debate. I like Luntz as a commentator on politics. I've heard about Brown from my relatives in Sacramento and it is uniformly bad. I saw him on Hannity and he impressed me as the consummate polictician who grabs and keeps power for its own sake. Good post, I enjoyed it.