Four years ago, Gray Davis was the underdog. Pitted in a primary against two millionaire Democrats, Al Checchi and Jane Harman, Davis successfully capitalized on his image as a middle-class political lifer in a David-versus-two-Goliaths primary. In the 1998 debates, Davis sounded like Stuart Smalley, comedian Al Franken's touchy-feely character, with his mantra: "I'm good enough. I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me."
Davis was such a good puppy, he won election.
Now, he's become a petty dictator.
Note how His Grayness agreed to only one televised debate with GOP opponent Bill Simon -- and then only at noon on a Monday, and only for one hour, not 90 minutes.
Former Attorney General Dan Lungren, who debated Davis in 1998 as the GOP gubernatorial nominee, sees Monday's low-profile debate sponsored by the Los Angeles Times as proof of Davis' clear "disdain" for California voters.
While Davis frequently appears at fund-raisers before constituents who write checks, he shortchanges the public with one miserable exchange. Davis is happy to appear on TV in scripted political ads funded by special interests. He has no use for free TV time, if it means his handlers don't write the script.
Green Party gubernatorial candidate Peter Camejo has faulted Davis for refusing to debate him. Sorry, but Davis doesn't have to give a platform to a fringe candidate who has garnered, at most, four points in recent polls.
What's astonishing, however, is that Davis threatened to walk out of the Monday debate if Camejo, who was an invited guest of rival Simon, so much as sat in the audience. (The Los Angeles Times barred Camejo from the debate room -- which spared Californians the sight of its czar throwing a tantrum and trotting off stage.)
Get the feeling that power has gone to Davis' head?
When Los Angeles Times Editorial Page Editor Janet Clayton asked Davis why so few legislators like him, Davis regurgitated some canned jokes, at which no one laughed, about his dullness. This is telling, because Davis has a crack campaign team. His advisers must have seen that question coming. Were they afraid to pose the question during the debate preparation? Or were they so cowed that this was the best response they could muster?
Simon continues to disappoint. He evades questions. He never explained, for example, what programs he would cut to balance the budget. He argued that, if elected, he would work to uphold gun laws with which he disagrees, then admitted that he would try to overturn two labor bills (with which he also disagrees) signed by Davis. For once, though, Simon did actually explain how the bills could hurt California workers.
Still, Simon leaves the observer with the impression that he doesn't know the text below the headlines.
At the end of the debate, the viewer knew nothing new, only what was known before. Davis is slick, and will do whatever he thinks he has to do to win office. Simon is also slick, and will say as little as possible to win office.
This non-debate debate can only leave voters feeling even more cynical, and with even lower expectations from political discourse. The 90-second responses served more to obfuscate than to enlighten. "See why Davis didn't want more debates?" his team can now argue. Oh joy.
"If Gray Davis gets away with it this time," Lungren said of Davis' debate-dodging strategy, "what are the prospects for serious debate in the future for statewide candidates, except at a black-hole time in television?"