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David Cox | The Grate Debate

After three weeks in sunny California, two of them cooped in a convention center and hotel conference rooms, how marvelous to wake up in Virginia, land of green trees, verdant fields, friendly folks…and those two banes of life in the Old Dominion: mosquitoes and yearly elections.

So, because of that last factoid, on Saturday I settled down to watch, via the marvels of the internet, the debate between gubernatorial candidates Bob McDonnell (R) and Creigh Deeds (D).

I can’t tell who won, but I know who lost: Techies. The Virginia Bar Association graciously provided for streaming video so the whole world could watch, if it wanted to. “Watch” is the key word, for after a jumpy few minutes, the audio went dead. It stayed dead for almost the number of minutes that Nixon’s Watergate-related tapes were erased. How grating.

Since one could only watch, the body language became fascinating. Creigh Deeds talks with his hands. He’s always in motion. Having been accused of the same trait, I like that.

Bob McDonnell, on the other hand, never looked at his opponent. Even when extending his hand to Deeds—was he being friendly? critical? endorsing him?—not once did I spot him looking left. Why not? Had he taken a “Don’t Look Left” pledge to join his “No New Tax” credo? Was he ignoring his opponent (then why the outstretched hand?)? Was he insecure, or just concentrating?

Since one has to wonder, point to Deeds on Body Language.

At long last, the sound returned, but hearing the two made the debate harder to call. Creigh was, well, Creigh: He is so intent on making his points that he speaks haltingly. Being from Bath County, he says “huntin’” and “fishin’.” Rather like many of us. But livechat carpers didn’t approve, preferring McDonnell’s smoother presence…which others called “slick.”

Take your pick.

More telling was the comment of the chatter who wrote, “Deeds keeps talking about how we need solutions, but doesn’t really talk about his solutions”; and I tend to agree. He spoke of big plans for spurring the economy, increasing jobs, and—most important of all to one who was largely spared from the notorious California gridlock but drove with the threat always in mind—transportation. Good, solid issues. But where were the specifics—not on his website, but in the debate, when people could hear them?

McDonnell, by contrast, offered at least a few. His problem was that they don’t add up. Two instances: He’s opposed to taxes; OK, no surprise. But then he speaks of upholding such things as “great universities” which notoriously cost money, which the state has notoriously crimped on sharing with them (only around 8% of UVa’s budget comes from public funds). Or, on transportation, he proposes (among other things) floating bonds: And just how will those be repaid? By our children, or our grandchildren?

Incredibly, though, McDonnell also placed himself as a defender of Bush economic policies, the very ones that contributed so heavily to our current mess. Who knows, that might prove to be McDonnell’s “Macaca” moment.

The best came last. They shook hands. Warmly. By total contrast, in last year’s debate for U.S. Senate, ex-govs Gilmore and Warner clearly wanted to stomp on each other’s guts. Not that Saturday was all sunshine. Still, Bob McDonnell could joke tastefully about Creigh’s name; Creigh could speak of supporting some of Bob’s measures while Attorney General; both could claim mutual support for some bills. If they are rivals—which they surely are, once again—they are at least friendly.

All this, of course, occurs before the ad-men do their dirty work.

My advice (not that anyone asks): Gentlemen, keep up the good will. Creigh, get specific. Articulate your plans that will back up your vision along with how to achieve them. Bob, acknowledge your opponent, and connect the dots between what you propose and what the cost will really be.

And to debate planners, please, please arrange at least one sustained conversation about one or two crucial topics, like transportation or the economy, instead of these across-the-board medleys that only produce sound-bites. Then, we the people could hear what the candidates really have to say, in some detail beyond the usual generalities, and in the scrutiny of debate which, no matter who wins, they will surely face.

Now THAT would be a public service.

 

This David Cox column originally appeared in The Rockbridge Weekly.


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