Here’s one verdict from Wednesday night’s Senate debate: The two major party candidates for U.S. Senate in California are far better communicators than the two major party candidates for California governor.
U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, the Democrat, and her Republican opponent, Carly Fiorina, were everything Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown aren't: clear, coherent, straightforward (most of the time) about their views, and interesting to listen to. Both women had a very good night.
Fiorina is a magnetic TV presence and a formidable politician. (Yes, I know: She says she’s not a politician, with all the faux commitment of a politician far more seasoned than she is.) She seemed most convincing in criticizing the stimulus bill and in talking about the problems of small business in California.
And she gave a brilliantly political answer to a question on whether she supported legislation to open up opportunities for young undocumented immigrants to go to college: She’s for it, she said, appealing to liberals grandly -- and then acknowledging, much more quickly and quietly, that she supports the Arizona law. She put her positions on the issue in the best possible light. That's how it's done.
As good as she was, Fiorina didn’t win the debate. This was Boxer’s night.
The U.S. senator may not be the most effective legislator in the world -- a point that Fiorina got across -- but she is a terrific campaigner. She drove home again and again the fact that Fiorina had fired thousands of people during her tenure as CEO at Hewlett Packard, and sent thousands of more jobs overseas.Fiorina tried but never really answered this.
And Boxer kept returning to Fiorina's record on jobs, in all kinds of answers to all kinds of questions. If there’s any one thing that will stay with anyone who saw or watched this debate, it was that. And that’s not good for Fiorina.
Boxer also got a big boost from a panel of journalists and a moderator who pressed Fiorina repeatedly on her more socially conservative positions, which are problematic in a liberal-libertarian state like this one. The journalists’ questions helped Boxer draw the contrast on issues like abortion and climate change -- without making the senator look heavy-handed.
Boxer’s performance had its flaws. At times she was too senatorial, talking about inside baseball that voters tune out. But she came off as the most hopeful, optimistic candidate, always a good thing to be, even in bad times.
Fiorina overdid the downbeat thing, scowling for long stretches of the debate and talking too much about anger and frustration. If there are future debates, Fiorina needs to do more pivoting from criticism of the current economic climate to explanations of how her own proposals would make things better. She missed repeated opportunities to do so.
She also should have come out and said she’s for Prop 23, the initiative to reverse the climate change legislation known as AB 32; after criticizing the legislation so forcefully, it looked weak when she balked on Prop 23. It was Fiorina’s weakest moment of the night.
So call the winner: Boxer, by a hair.
The loser: The tired television political debate format.
The exchange of short answers -- 90 seconds was the time limit Wednesday night -- doesn’t serve voters well. And limiting a debate to less than an hour makes no sense.
These are difficult times, and Senators face tough questions. Two hours for a debate between two people vying to represent 38 million people in the U.S. Senate is not too much time.
A better debate would also give the candidates more time to develop arguments -- at least three minutes for answers, maybe as much as five.
Boxer and Fiorina are strong enough politicians that they left you wanting to hear more when the moderator cut them off. I’d love to see these two engage not in a formal debate but in a conversation with each other, with an expert moderator only intervening occasionally.