The Ungreat Debate
The UnGreat Debate, by Gail Collins
We do not generally look to gubernatorial debates for excitement. But this week there was a fascinating one in Arizona, where Gov. Jan Brewer gave a bad performance of epic proportions. Really, Richard Nixon in 1960 was Demosthenes in Athens compared with this one.
Brewer began by blanking out during her introductory statement — there was this horrible 16-second interval where she went silent, stared down at her notes and giggled. The evening ended when she stomped away from reporters who were yelling: “Governor, please answer the question about the headless bodies.”
Everyone knows you never want to finish a big campaign night on a headless-body note.
Brewer is an unelected governor, a Republican who moved into the job when Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, was named secretary of homeland security. (Someday, when things are calmer, we may want to discuss whether it was really a good idea for President Obama to fill his administration with senators and governors from swing states.) She is trying to win a term in her own right by running almost exclusively on her support for that new Arizona law aimed at cracking down on undocumented immigrants.
The governor has been on national programs on Fox 20 times since April to talk about illegal immigration, but she has been generally unavailable to the Arizona reporters. I learned this from the postdebate newscast on the local Fox outlet in Phoenix, where the reporter Steve Krafft complained about her propensity to stonewall the state’s news media in favor of the national shows. During the postdebate confrontation, “I locked eyes with her,” said Krafft. “She was looking right at me as if perhaps, maybe, I might ask some question and bail her out. … but all of us wanted an answer.”
The headless body debate goes back to Brewer’s longstanding contention that Arizona is plagued by “drugs and the kidnappings and the extortion and the beheadings” related to illegal immigration.
Naturally, inquiring minds wanted to know about the beheading part. “Oh, our law enforcement agencies have found bodies in the desert — either buried or just lying out there that have been beheaded,” she said in an interview.
This was both memorable and untrue. At the debate, her Democratic opponent, Terry Goddard, claimed that Arizona was losing business because people around the country now believe it’s a hellhole of immigration-fueled violence. “Jan, I call upon you today to say there are no beheadings,” he demanded.
We will pause here briefly to express regret that questions like this don’t come up more frequently in gubernatorial debates. Really, it’s usually all about bonded indebtedness and pensions.
“Terry, I will call you out. I think that you ought to renounce your support and endorsement of the unions that are boycotting our state,” Brewer responded, not precisely to the point.
The most interesting issue in this campaign, and the most critical one for the rest of the nation, is whether crime by undocumented immigrants created public fear, which then led to the Arizona law and Brewer’s current popularity. Or whether politicians, in search of a winning issue, created the fear all by themselves. During John McCain’s sterling performance in his primary campaign this summer, he contended that cars full of illegal immigrants “are intentionally causing accidents on the freeway.”
The nonexistent beheadings and alleged drive-by assaults are being brought up at a time when, as Goddard points out, “violent crime is at the lowest level it’s been since 1983 and crime along the border is at least at a 10-year-low.”
But there’s an undeniable surge in drug-related violence in Mexico. The question is whether, for Arizona, the problem lies in the general population of illegal immigrants or the well-financed and technologically sophisticated crime lords who smuggle drugs and human beings over the border.
Goddard, who is the state attorney general, is absolutely passionate on this subject. He can go on for hours about the Treasury Department’s failure to follow the dirty money. He worked with Western Union to stop the smugglers’ ability to receive payments by wire for their human cargo. He’s outraged about the way our laws limiting the amount of cash people can carry across the border haven’t kept up with the modern methods of transferring money.
None of these issues, alas, are nearly as exciting as headless bodies or demonic drivers.
In her postdebate repair effort, Brewer told a radio interviewer that “the bottom line is that there have been beheadings in the border region in Mexico.” She also said that the difference between her and her opponent was that “I’ve done something. Terry hasn’t did anything.” We are going to forgive her the sentence construction because, really, it had been a bad week.
She also announced that there will be no more debates.