The awful debate between California’s Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown.

The debate last night between California gubernatorial candidates Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown was pretty awful, but it could have been worse. Yes, the discussion was often superficial and disingenuous, but at least the word “whore” made several appearances. Tom Brokaw was there, too, and it was sort of nice to see him, even if no one had really missed him. The main challenge for viewers was to avoid getting too dispirited by the condition of California (that stubborn socioeconomic death spiral, for example) and instead try to focus on what matters. And those things would be the election-season setbacks and gaffes that—to use a favorite journalistic phrase—“threaten to overshadow” each candidate’s campaign.

To expand on this point, settings aside questions of economics, law, and social policy for now, there are two main issues at stake in this election. The first is that Meg Whitman, who has been fairly tough on illegal immigration, turns out to have had an illegal immigrant as her housekeeper for about nine years. The second is that a campaign aide to Jerry Brown was overheard on a recording calling Meg Whitman a whore. Fortunately, all the participants did an admirable job placing a spotlight on these two matters.

Asked about her illegally employed ex-housekeeper, Whitman offered up an explanation that has, after a few hiccups over the past couple of weeks, been honed into something usable. “We went through an employment agency,” Whitman said. “We looked at three forms of identification. Our housekeeper falsified those documents and came to admit it nine years later. It broke my heart, but I had to fire her. I had to let her go, but this is why we need a very good E-Verify system.”

Brown responded with some equally unspontaneous points about undocumented workers being human beings and weaving in—if “weaving in” is the right term to use for “not at all subtly tacking on”—yet another dig about Whitman’s erstwhile housekeeper: “And, by the way, I don’t want to get into this, I think it’s kind of a sorry tale. After working nine years there, she didn’t even get her a lawyer. At least, I could tell you, that could be done.”

It wasn’t especially subtle, but, then again, Jerry Brown’s strengths in this campaign haven’t been in overall subtlety. And this takes us into the second great issue facing Californians today. Recently, Brown made the mistake of leaving a hoped-for supporter a voicemail and failing to hang up the phone properly. Recorded soon after were a few minutes of Brown strategizing with aides, one of whom suggested that the campaign should portray Whitman, because of supposed cravenness over pension negotiations, as a whore. The aide’s idea in full: “What about saying she's a whore?” Take that, Karl Rove.

Tom Brokaw suggested that this was bad. “We've heard no outrage from you about the use of that kind of language, which, to many women, is the same as calling an African American the n-word,” Brokaw intoned. “Have you been in charge of the investigation in your campaign to find out who is responsible for using that phrase?” To which Brown’s response fell somewhat short of Carey Grant in suaveness:

BROWN: I don't agree with that comparison, number one. Number two, this is a five-week-old private conversation...

WHITMAN: Ooooooooooohh.

BROWN: ...picked up on a cell phone, uh, with a garbled transmission. Very hard to detect who it is. This is not, I don't want to get into the term and how it's used. But I will say the campaign apologized promptly, and I affirm that apology tonight.

BROKAW: You're repeating it to Ms. Whitman?

BROWN: Yes I am. I do. I, it's unfortunate. I'm sorry it happened. I apologize.

Moving words, and Brown delivered them with all the sincerity of a big brother apologizing for having ripped the head off his sister’s doll.

Whitman, for her part, was mournful. “Jerry, it's not just me,” she reminded him. “It's the people of California who deserve better than slurs and personal attacks. That's not what California is about. It is not our better selves.”

This isn’t to say there was no discussion of policy. The two candidates articulated differences on a couple of things, such as whether to put on hold on emissions law AB 32 (Whitman says yes, Brown no). There were budget numbers cited—particularly by Whitman, who seems to have memorized them quite ably—although there were few specifics on where cuts would be made.

But overall, both sides probably know that what awaits them in Sacramento is a nearly ungovernable mess. Whitman for some reason thinks that heading up eBay prepares you for this. It makes no sense, but it does appeal to voters dreaming of a new start. Brown, on the other hand, believes he understands Sacramento because he’s been there before. That’s true, but it’s not especially inspiring.

Meg Whitman has taken a look at the jalopy and offered a list of repairs, none of which she can make. (Even spending $140 million on her campaign hasn’t revived the state’s economy. Damn.) Jerry Brown has taken a look at the jalopy and said, no problem, he’ll just kick the hood a few times, duct-tape the accelerator, and then we’ll get right over that hill. So, yeah, I guess Brown has the better offer, but it sure is hard to relish the ride.

T.A. Frank is a writer in Los Angeles and an editor at The Washington Monthly. 

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