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Assessing the Not-So-Great Debate


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So the first – and probably last – televised debate between John Kitzhaber and Chris Dudley is over. Who won? As usual, that depends on who you talk to.

The highly partisan Democrats at Blue Oregon are convinced their man wiped the floor with Dudley.

“John Kitzhaber knows his stuff,” writes Kari Chisholm. “He's got serious ideas for creating jobs immediately, rethinking how we fund public services, and knows what he believes on a series of issues - large and small.”

The hapless Dudley, on the other hand, “is easily baffled when he's asked to move off his talking points,” Chisholm claims. “A simple question from [Oregonian political reporter] Jeff Mapes - that asked him to name one place in Oregon where the wrong kind of development was happening - and he went all deer-in-the-headlights.”

The equally partisan Republicans at Oregon Catalyst are confident Dudley won the personality contest.

“Kitzhaber came off like a man who has been in government all his life with no respect for those who have not,” comments Jayne Carroll. “He was petulant and not very likable. Dudley was amiable and better informed than most expected. The worst part for Kitzhaber (not his fault) is that he looked like a dwarf standing next to Dudley … not attractive.”

(In fairness, any normal-sized human being looks like a dwarf standing next to a former NBA center who’s almost 7 feet tall.)

“Does this guy make you feel good, do you like him, does he seem like he will chart a positive course?” asked “Rupert in Springfield,” a frequent Oregon Catalyst commenter. “Here is where I think Kitzhaber failed. He simply does not come off as likable and certainly does not come off as having a positive vision for the future.”

I watched the video of the debate on The Oregonian’s site this morning and came away thinking the results weren’t as clear-cut as the partisans are making them out to be.

Dudley did seem a bit flustered at a couple of points, especially when Mapes asked the candidates (about 13 minutes into the video) to give a “concrete example of a way land is being used or not used” that he doesn’t approve of. Dudley couldn’t come up with one, and looked a little uneasy. But “deer in the headlights”? Nah.

On the other hand, Kitzhaber didn’t impress me as “petulant” or arrogant, and I didn’t see anything extraordinarily charming or likable about Dudley. He handled himself okay for a rookie, but obviously wasn’t as poised or in command of the facts and issues as Kitzhaber was.

Moving on to more substantive matters, Dudley kept talking about a “new vision” for Oregon, but his vision seems to consist of the same old trickle-down snake oil that Republicans have been peddling for more than 30 years.

A telling moment – it happens about six minutes into the video – was when Mapes confronted Dudley about his plan to cut the capital gains tax, asking him to “explain why a trust fund baby who lives off of stocks and bonds that may have nothing to do with Oregon should be taxed 3% of their [capital gains] income while the average working Oregonian pays 9% tax on their wages.”

Dudley’s response was pretty lame – “We need to keep revenue and we need to keep capital in our state,” he said, and supposedly cutting the capital gains tax will do that by encouraging rich people to stay here instead of moving elsewhere.

Mapes’s sharp question pinpointed the problem with that theory: Even if cutting the capital gains tax does encourage wealthy people to move to Oregon or to stay here, it’s no guarantee they’ll move their businesses or investments here.

Who do I think won? I’m honestly not sure – and my opinion doesn’t matter anyhow, because everybody perceives a debate in a different way and the viewers often pick a “winner” who’s not the one the pundits agreed on. (Think of Kennedy v. Nixon in 1960 or Bush v. Gore in 2000.) I’ll just make two observations:

First, it could be significant that Kitzhaber’s campaign website prominently displays a clip of Kitzhaber’s concluding statement under the headline “John Kitzhaber Dominates Debate,” while Dudley’s website seems to be trying to pretend the debate never happened.

Second, when people go on about how much more “likable” their candidate was, it generally means he got clobbered on the issues.


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