Arnold Schwarzenegger campaigns for governor as an outsider, but he's acting like just another business-as-usual pol by refusing to enter more than one debate or candidate forum before the Oct. 7 election to recall Gov. Gray Davis.
It's an old front-runner's tactic: Don't expose yourself to attacks by your opponents when you get all the attention you want through celebrity and media attention. For Schwarzenegger, remaining above the debates allows him to continue his campaign of generalities -- Davis is bad, business is suffering, schools need more help -- without going on to the hard part: naming specific solutions to the state's problems. This is where his inexperience hurts him, because aloofness works only if you have a commanding lead. The polls don't suggest that Schwarzenegger has one or is gaining one.
The first of more than a dozen planned candidate forums is scheduled in Walnut Creek this evening. Five candidates seeking to succeed Davis, should he be recalled, will be on hand: Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, state Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks), Peter Ueberroth, Peter Camejo and Arianna Huffington.
Schwarzenegger won't be there, having agreed to participate only once, in a forum that does not resemble a debate. At that Sept. 17 event, sponsored by the California Broadcasters Assn., candidates may even be allowed to review the questions in advance. "The rest of the time I will be traveling up and down the state campaigning, getting the message out there, knocking on doors, going to TV stations, radio stations, talking to the journalists," Schwarzenegger said. That's no excuse. The others have to campaign like that, too.
Only live, unrehearsed questions can take the measure of the candidates. Office-seekers should have to spontaneously demonstrate their familiarity with big issues like the state's chronic budget troubles and at least outline how they would address them. But Schwarzenegger is following another old political dictum: The less specific you are, the less you give your opponents to criticize.
Debates are particularly necessary in a short campaign like this one. Schwarzenegger says voters are tired of the old politics and old ideas. One round of rehearsed answers would be a slam-dunk for actor Schwarzenegger. But that won't give voters any new politics or better ideas -- or any good reasons to vote for a candidate who refuses to do more.