2010 Democratic Gubernatorial Candidate Debate
Mon, 02/08/2010 - 7:30pm
I hope you guys are watching this -- you're not going to get to see another one.
The two presumptive frontrunners for the Democratic spot in this year's governor race, Farouk Shami and former Houston mayor Bill White, are debating in Fort Worth tonight. The debate is hosted by KERA, the local public access station, and can be caught on TV, radio, and on the Texas Debates website.
My opinions after the jump.
I am restraining myself from saying that the line of the evening is Farouk Shami saying that "a day without Mexicans is like a day without sunshine in our state." Oops, there I went and did it, didn't I?
I wasn't kidding when I said you're not going to see another Democratic gubernatorial debate in this primary season. After this one, I don't think anyone will see a need -- and even if someone tried, the White campaign would probably turn it down.
The reason for this is that, of the seven (!) Democratic candidates for governor, the two that appeared on the stage were the only ones with any sort of potential for credibility. I don't say that with any disrespect for the other five candidates -- I'm reporting, not judging. There was a reason that only two were invited to this debate, and though that reason is based on KERA's judgment, there are many that would share it. Bill White clears the bar because of his many years of experience and his popularity in the largest city in the state, and Shami clears it because... well, because he can drop millions of dollars at the drop of a hat. Again, I'm reporting, not judging.
The problem with running with lots of money but no political history is that people will question your qualifications for the position. Shami, for better or worse, entered this debate with Damocles' microscope above his head with regard to knowledge of the Texas political system. He needed to walk in and knock any knowledge-based questions out of the ballpark. And by this measure, he pretty demonstrably failed. He was clearly given some messaging drilling for this debate, and stayed on message -- but it was the wrong message. He effectively turned questions to attacks on Bill White, which would normally be the Politics 101 underdog strategy, and he had a few standard campaign messages he repeated often, which would also normally be good execution out of the standard playbook. But in my estimation, the emphasis on these grossly missed the mark as to what Farouk Shami needed to get out of this debate. Promising 100,000 jobs in the next two years and no electric bills for Texans within ten years sound wonderful, but if no one believes you know how to govern in the first place, those promises end up looking pie-in-the-sky.
By comparison, Mayor White could play straight out of the playbook. He's the traditional frontrunner, and he's not burdened by the assumptions of not being ready for prime time. He recognized that his opponent was the Republican party, and he refused to engage Shami on the attacks on his record. This was clearly intentional, as his closing statement noted how the tone of the debate was very different from the Republican debate with candidates "shouting over each other" -- pretty sure that line wouldn't be in there if that hadn't been the plan. He has always had a talent for being detailed with policy without getting overly wonky, so he could simply walk up to the podium and do what he has done for years knowing that his typical approach to these things would also have the convenient side effect of highlighting Shami's lack of detail on any questions on specific subject matters. Shami was able to present the details on various plans he had presented previously in his press releases, but when asked questions requiring detail as to substance or implementation, he very obviously would redirect back to a broader talking point. Bill White just as obviously was able to address them head-on.
So when the dust settles, it is clear that Bill White won this debate -- but it can equally be said that Farouk Shami lost the debate.