Huffpost Politics
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Emil Guillermo Headshot

If Congressman Mike Honda Is Dodging Anything, It's Khanna's Desperate Early Debate Strategy

Posted: Updated:

Congressman Mike Honda knows how to run a campaign, and at age 72, after serving Santa Clara since 1990, the last 14 in the House, he knows what it means to be a public servant.

In his life, I don't know him to ever duck anything, though it was possibly easier to be an infant in an internment camp than an adult stripped of one's civil liberties.

In his current campaign, if Honda's guilty of anything, it might be of being somewhat old-school. You know, you campaign by talking to people and doing your job well.

Honda has that avuncular appeal that makes a difference in politics. Along with being a veteran hands-on pol, Honda comes with what makes an effective member in the House of Representatives.

It boils down to one word: Seniority.

In Congress, seniority commands respect and power. You throw that away, and your district is back to square one. But that doesn't stop youthful challengers from trying to knock off Honda.

The latest in Honda's Santa Clara district to try is Ro Khanna, a former Obama administration member turned Silicon Valley lawyer who has the mindset of the tech class.

They twist the cliché and make it anew: "If it ain't broke, break it. It might lead to innovation." It's that kind of disruptive attitude that Khanna brings to the campaign. But he has to. He's the upstart who still needs to get better known.

And he's a natural for the media gimmick of early and frequent debates as part of any endorsement process. But it only sounds like a good thing on the surface. It's really just a great manufactured fake issue.

Ordinarily, candidates would meet individually with an editorial board so that an endorsement decision is made.

By making the meetings public and live streamed, it's all part of the campaign. And then by virtue of having both candidates present at once...voila! A debate!

It's a good idea if you're an upstart because -- under the guise of taking the high road of transparency -- you put the pressure on the dastardly incumbent.

Of course, the media likes the idea because they're in on the gimmick. Live streamed debate manufactured for public consumption -- what an innovation?

No, what a debate gimmick. And a campaign strategy usually deployed by those desperate to create some campaign heat.

Anyone who knows campaigns understands that debates come toward the end of a campaign arc for a reason. It's a natural time just before the election, when the electorate is most focused on the issue and the race. It's all about maximum impact.

It also limits any direct comparison or that one key moment or blunder that can hurt or help a campaign the most.

Debating before the end is like spending all your cash in April when you have a campaign that could possibly last beyond June and into November (More on that later).

To put it another way, Khanna wanting to debate now is like trying to induce childbirth after the first trimester. What's the rush?

But he's a disruptor and he needs to debate more than Honda does. Aside from his billionaire backers, Khanna isn't quite as well known by the rank-and-file Democrats of the district. The teachers, the government workers, unionists. Regular folk. Khanna needs exposure, as well as side-by-side debate comparisons to unseat the incumbent.

So he pushes for early debate and tries to make it sound like Honda is somehow less than forthright, or even anti-democratic for not saying yes to a debate plan that only advantages Khanna.

Why would Honda do that?

Khanna even has the media asking pro-Khanna questions like, " Why is Honda ducking the debate?" Honda isn't. He's just not playing into the disruptive self-serving strategy of Khanna. In that sense, Khanna is far from transparent about his own self-serving goals.To see how ridiculous early debates are, just replace one disruptive idea with another.

Khanna has more than $2 million dollars in campaign funds, about double what Honda has raised. Why doesn't Khanna just spend all his money now in April when there's no competition for ads? Spend his wad now. He could build a huge advantage now, right?

Why it's scathingly brilliant, possibly innovative!

Of course, he won't do that because the conventional wisdom has it that spending works best for Khanna or any candidate toward the end of a campaign.
Oh, just like debates.

So it's a nice try by Khanna to get the media, arrange the debates, and then make the call for early debates look like Honda is "ducking" debate. But get real. Khanna's just trying to find an edge.

Still, in doing so Khanna shifts the campaign making it less about issues and effectiveness and more about the debating or not debating.

Keep it to the issues, please. Speak to the voters directly. Don't tell us about why you have a better idea for debate implementation. Tell us what you've done for the people of Santa Clara and why you'd be a better representative for everyone in the district.

Asking for early debates is just Khanna's way of changing the campaign to make it sound that Honda -- a man who has been an exemplary representative -- is somehow being irresponsible. He's not.

Why should he take the bait of a disruptive trickster trying to upset the apple cart whatever way he can.

Instead of that tack, Khanna should just keep talking to the voters directly. Most of them know Mike already. Let them get to know the real Khanna. If they like him, his style, his approach, his ideas, and he can make the case that he's better than Honda, he'll get the votes and beat the incumbent.

Right now, Khanna's relying too much by saying, "Debate? I have a better app for that!" But I sure hope he considers that other disruptive move I mentioned.

Spending at least half his money right now may be as dumb as early and frequent debates. But why not? At least it will level the playing field in cash donations (a desirable thing) where Khanna holds a 2-1 cash advantage over Honda. Now that's innovation! Using your money to limit an advantage and promote campaign fairness! Don't duck that one, Ro!