On Friday evening, Attorney General Greg Abbott, the Republican nominee for Governor, and State Senator Wendy Davis (D-Tarrant County), the Democratic nominee, squared off in the first of two general election debates in the gubernatorial campaign. The debate was minimally televised but livestreamed from McAllen. In a word, it was a disaster. In two words, it was an unmitigated disaster. The format of the debate was so terrible that it is literally incapable of being described in an artful manner.
Basically, the entire debate consisted of what would be referred to by those familiar with debates as a “lightning round.” One of the three moderators would come up with a fairly specific question, typically with some background, addressed to a specific candidate. No followup, no rebuttals and no clarification were made. Just a softball (given in advanced) lobbed right over the plate, and the same trite sound bites coming up again and again. The one exception to this rule was what they called the “Candidate-to-candidate questioning,” which consisted of a grand total of two questions. Davis took the opportunity to pontificate about one of her pet issues, with a thoroughly unremarkable question buried somewhere amid the rambling. Abbott asked Davis point-blank, “Do you regret voting for President Obama?” Davis, unsurprisingly, fumbled…Derek Carr style.
Longtime readers of my words will definitely know that I am no obsequious loyalist to Obama. I wouldn’t have been personally offended if Davis would have said “yes,” and then proceeded to list the multitude of reasons she supposedly would have an ax to grind against the President. It’s a reasonable strategy for a Democrat in a red state; it might end up working out well for Alison Grimes in Kentucky. Likewise, she could have stood her ground and defended the President against an increasingly out-of-touch Republican Party. Either option has some strengths, but her chicken way of equivocating was just pitiful.
Those questioners were out of place for Davis compared to the rest of the debate. Otherwise, she was knowledgeable, on-message and with no shortage of good zingers against Abbott. She wiped the floor with him on the merits, but –especially in a poorly formatted debate like this– that just doesn’t mean much anymore.
Abbott was totally dominant on style. He was sleek, polished and articulate. Davis was none of those. Most pundits have taken to the word “robotic” in describing Davis’ performance. Her monotone voice and general absence of delivery skills was quite apparent throughout the evening. As I have said many times over the past few months, Davis’ strength is not her innate political acumen. She has tremendous perseverance, courage and bravery, that’s what led her to the filibuster. Everyone obviously remembers that, but no one remembers any sound bites from her. And that’s what wins debates, not superior policy prescriptions.
Of course, I wasn’t surprised with Davis’ performance. And, please not forget, the worst part of the debate was its format. The moderators were some of the worst “journalists” I have ever seen. When one is an underdog like Davis, and the rules simply do not allow you to rebut the baldfaced lies lodged by your opponent, the odds are just stacked against you. That should be the takeaway lesson.
Nevertheless, both Abbott and Davis claimed victory in the debate. The Houston Chronicle noted this morning that they both a renewed sense of optimism on the campaign trail. In reality, however, this isn’t especially good news for the Davis camp. Even if, for the sake of argument, we say that the debate was a push, it’s bad news for Davis. With the polls putting her behind anywhere from 8 to 18 points, she needed a decisive victory on Friday night. Only the truly deranged would actually believe she actually achieved it.