If "winning" Thursday evening’s gubernatorial debate meant making it any more likely that Neel Kashkari would win the Nov. 4 election against three-term Gov. Jerry Brown, then no, Kashkari didn’t win, and he can’t possibly have believed he was going to.
But what if winning meant laying the foundation for a resurgent Republican Party in California, or making Kashkari a major player in any future election talk for U.S. Senate or statewide office. Using those criteria, did he win?
No. Kashkari performed well, looked good on camera, correctly focused on the plight of the state’s middle class and poked at some of the obvious weaknesses in Brown’s talking points. But he missed some obvious ones too, and it’s hard to say that he shaped the conversation that Californians must have about their future.
What happens after the Proposition 30 tax increases expire? Does California renew the taxes, is the state on track to grow out of the need for the revenue, or is there some dramatic alternative?
That’s what people need to hear from Republicans. Democrats too, by the way. Jerry Brown will be with us for another four years, but then what? What’s the plan going forward? What has Kashkari got, what have the Republicans got, to point the way?
The Californians who tuned in to find out were given little to sink their teeth into. If they are already skeptical of what Kashkari calls the "crazy train" – the planned high-speed rail through the Central Valley – they may have applauded the challenger's critique. They may have liked his proposal, as I do, to repurpose the rail money for a more secure water future.
But the train, although it was a Brown idea from the 1980s, was embraced by California voters in 2008 under the leadership of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the state’s most recent Republican governor, and the man who tried to move the party to the centrist position that Kashkari is now trying to occupy.
Kashkari hates the tunnels around the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to complete the State Water Project begun decades ago by Brown’s father, former Gov. Pat Brown. OK, but bringing the project to its current stage was also a Schwarzenegger achievement.
Kashkari dislikes realignment, the prisons-to-jails plan that is so closely tied to Brown that it’s almost never discussed without using the governor’s name. Fine, but Brown’s plan was a reworking of a Schwarzenegger attempt.
"I really admire Gov. Schwarzenegger," Kashkari said, noting his accomplishments as an immigrant to the country. "He was an inspiration for all of us," he said, but "I don't think he was as successful as he would have liked to have been."
And why not? Brown nailed it twice, once with a modest zinger – "It does take some inside knowledge to get it done" – and once with a less satisfying but perhaps more realistic acknowledgment: These things take time. Lots of it.
Kashkari said he would be more successful than Schwarzenegger because of his experience in Washington helping to orchestrate the bank bailout. If that track record is going to attract any enthusiastic supporters, it’s likely that those supporters would embrace a more Democratic than Republican agenda.
Kashkari was at his strongest when he looked through the camera and toward California voters – those who may have been watching, anyway – and asking: "You at home – do you think we’re back?"
No, California is not back, but Kashkari has a tough time making the case that he, and the state GOP, have the better way back. He had to stoke regret among 2010 Brown voters and make them think they’d have been better off over the last four years with Meg Whitman, Steve Poizner, Carly Fiorina – or Neel Kashkari. It’s unlikely that he did that. And in failing to do it, he also missed the chance to make voters ask: What happens after Jerry?
Follow Robert Greene on Twitter @RGreene2