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Newsman's Great Expectations Shattered : Political 'Debates' Found No Heat in the Candidates' Kitchens

November 16, 1986|BILL RITTER | Bill Ritter is business editor of the San Diego County Edition of The Times. and

Call it naive. Say that I harbor unrealistic expectations. Offer to sell me the bridge that spans San Diego Bay. But I had no idea I would feel so let down after moderating the seven state Assembly election debates on KPBS-TV (Channel 15).

Here, I thought, was a chance to get some real insight from some political movers and shakers, the five men and two women who vote in the Assembly on how much tax money we spend on education and drug abuse prevention and toxic waste cleanup.

And if they didn't have the answers to our insurance crisis or the border sewage problem, well, maybe their opponents did.

And if their opponents didn't have all the answers, I thought that we would at least have a lively, spirited time, disagreeing on the issues and stirring up the muck.

Good ol' fashioned campaigning.

Elections, after all, are something like corporate proxy fights, which, as business editor, I'm familiar with covering. Stumping for votes can't be all that different than vying for shareholder support.

I wanted cerebral stuff, the Great Debate, the mashing of philosophies, of politics, of what people really believe in. Insight, the big picture, the worldly view.

Instead, what I--what we--got was more a class in etiquette than polemics. It was a road map to the land of the safe and narrow.

Immigration and border sewage, we were told, were federal problems, not really the state's concerns.

The insurance crisis was really a communications problem; what was needed was a friendly sit-down with insurance carriers.

Chemical dumping wasn't really a problem either. After all, there were lots of existing laws already on the books, so why did we need Proposition 65 and another law?

And, the clincher, when all else failed, was that the toxics problem was merely a creation of Assemblyman Tom Hayden, the former radical whose name is offered as a bugaboo and, I suppose, is meant to derail any legitimate discussion of the issues.

The only real excitement came when one of the minor candidates unveiled a white laboratory rat just prior to one of the television debates, some sort of media guerrilla theater, I suspect.

Hey, if this is politics, let me off the bus, thank you.

Incumbents figured they had nothing to gain by taking chances. Better to play it cool, they sensed. From a strict political strategist's view, that was the safest if not the most enlightening move.

And the challengers, with the notable exception of only a precious few, also played it safe, rarely confronting the incumbent and acting as polite as Sunday school students.

It seemed they weren't very concerned about confronting their opponents and were apparently worried that they might ruffle feathers and, heaven forbid, perhaps hurt their future political career plans.

In many of the contests, the candidates actually agreed with each other more often than not. They didn't debate the issues, they discussed them.

On most of the key issues--from the safe drinking water initiative to the insurance crisis to the immigration question--the incumbents and the challengers seemed more concerned about how they sounded on TV than what they said to the electorate.

But the most disquieting aspect was the seeming lack of in-depth analysis or philosophy or perspective. Answers tended toward the tried and true, the party line.

Where are the visionaries, the thinkers, the leaders who can offer bold new programs and introduce innovative legislation and present us with exciting options? If they're running for office, they seem to be hiding their bold side by playing it so safe.

Where, I wonder, are the citizens who think that maybe, just maybe, they can lead without worrying about running for reelection every two years.

So now, back to the business section I go, but not with any regret.

I'll take one nose-to-nose proxy fight over 10 elections any day.

Why, there's more juicy stuff in one shareholder class-action lawsuit than in all seven of the debates I moderated.

Corporate raiders vying for power have such pointed verbal swords these days that they sound like, well, like political challengers used to sound.

Maybe I'm just overdosed on elections and need a break.

That's it, I'm sure.

Maybe the adrenalin will start pumping again next year, when a new set of candidates emerge, offering hope of something different, not afraid to veer from the safe and narrow road.

I suppose if you have a bay bridge to peddle then, I'll be an easy mark.


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