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With a week to go, some thoughts on the (final?) Berman v. Sherman debate

by Jonah Lowenfeld

October 29, 2012 | 10:15 pm

On Monday, the same day Howard Berman’s campaign accused fellow Democrat-turned opponent Brad Sherman of dodging debate invitations (L.A. Times) and BuzzFeed ran a piece about an anti-Berman mailer, the two Congressmen mixed it up in what may turn out to be their last debate on Which Way, L.A.? on KCRW.

Warren Olney moderated the encounter expertly, managing to keep both Congressmen to their allotted times while weaving in questions about their accomplishments, their reputations and how each one has run in this very expensive (between the two campaigns and outside groups, it tops $13 million) and very contentious campaign.

After listening, here are the three thoughts:

1. Getting up in arms over mailers is mostly a waste of time. The Buzzfeed story today is an interesting read, looking closely at one pro-Sherman Super-PAC mailer that appears to touch “the hot buttons of race and sexual orientation, as well as intra-party politics” by linking Berman to Rep. Maxine Waters, Rep. Barbara Boxer, and Rep. Barney Frank.

I’m not sure if the mailer is as much of a dog-whistle as the unnamed “Democratic operatives” who talked to Buzzfeed seem to think it is, but it would be pretty remarkable for a Democratic incumbent (Sherman) to suggest that the other (Berman) is too closely linked to the other members of their party.

Unfortunately for the Berman campaign, which called it “offensive,” the mailer isn’t a Sherman mailer. It’s a Super PAC mailer that attempts to sway Republican voters into backing one of two Democrats in this race. Of course, Sherman pled ignorance – as any politician would. Welcome to the brave new world of uncoordinated campaigns.

2. Sherman has always been, and continues to be, far more comfortable on the attack than Berman is. If you still need evidence of this, listen to Olney’s question to Sherman about whether it’s legitimate to critique Berman, the former chair and ranking member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, for travelling abroad on the taxpayer dime or on trips paid for by special interests.

Berman’s practice sounds like it might be defensible, and he cited two former Secretaries of State supporting his claim that such trips are a necessary part of being a leading member of the foreign affairs committee.

But when Olney turned to Sherman, the Congressman was more than ready with his answer. Many of Berman’s trips, Sherman said, were taken before Berman became chairman of the committee, and that some of what Berman did (like traveling to accept honoraria from business interests) has since been prohibited.

And that – unlike the mailer mentioned above – is an argument that the Sherman campaign itself has been making for months. The mailers they send feature hand-drawn illustrations of Berman traveling to countries around the world; one recent TV ad has a soundtrack of plunky banjo music.

Contrast that to Berman’s attempts to attack Sherman. One way to read the fight at Pierce College was that it came out of the fact that Berman couldn’t simply say that Sherman was lying when he claimed that Berman hadn’t authored the DREAM Act. Instead he suggested that Sherman might be “delusional,” a criticism that few in the audience heard or understood.

On the KCRW debate, Berman did get the message across more clearly -- “The fact is he's not delusional; he was lying”  -- but that was two weeks after the debate at Pierce ended.

Berman's allies quickly came to his defense after Pierce, but what if the Berman campaign had come out after the Pierce College debacle and simply called Sherman a bully and a liar? Those are labels that Berman and his campaign still haven’t really tried to attach to Sherman (although one pro-Berman Super PAC did try to label Sherman a “pufferfish”). But even if they had, that would have left the Berman camp with less than a month to try to catch the candidate who has been ahead (or way ahead) in every poll released since this race first began.

If Berman wins next week, it might be thanks to the fallout from Pierce College (although the Sherman camp says that their internal polling after the incident shows them actually pulling further ahead) or thanks to Republican voters or thanks to something I can’t predict today.

But if not, one possible lesson to learn might be this: If you want to go negative, brand your opponent as something more ominous than “ineffective.” And do it early in the race.

3. Even today, more than a year after it started, Berman v. Sherman is still a head-scratcher. For most 30th district voters, it’s a confusion-inducing choice. Listen to the recordings of the voters canvased by KCRW, and you’ll hear dismay, disgust and confusion as to what they should do with Berman-Sherman. That’s certainly what I found talking to people in the district – although I also found a good number of people who didn’t have a clue who these men were.

For spectators, Berman v. Sherman is a curiosity. Seriously, talk to anyone who knows about the race but doesn’t live in the district and doesn’t have a dog in the fight, and they’ll likely end up with a bemused look on their face as they shake their heads and wonder if the race matters at all.

For reporters, meanwhile, the race presents a conundrum that even a political science professor couldn’t answer. Berman v. Sherman isn’t about who took which taxpayer-funded trips or who lost control at a candidates’ debate. It’s a question about what kind of member of Congress the voters in the 30th District want.

For this reporter who doesn’t live in the district, it’s been educational and challenging and at times fun to follow. But I’m not convinced that the average voter – who might be trying to balance a job, family responsibilities and possibly even the task of parsing the 11 different statewide measures on the ballot this November – has the interest, let alone the time to decide what makes a better Congressman.

Which is probably why the polls are still saying what they’ve been saying all along, which is: The Congressman who represented more than half the district, who gives out promotional combs at his (almost monthly) town hall meetings, is winning. The other one, the Congressman who’s been endorsed by every significant newspaper and practically every national politician who’s taken a side in the race, isn’t.

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As a result of California’s 2011 redistricting, two Jewish Democratic incumbent congressmen, Howard Berman (D - Valley Village) and Brad Sherman (D - Sherman Oaks), have both...

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