Politics

The Time Eric Swalwell Staged a Fake Debate—and Didn’t Win

Eric Swalwell speaking at a campaign event.
Rep. Eric Swalwell speaks to the crowd on Saturday in Columbia, South Carolina.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images

A lot of white men are running for the Democratic presidential nomination, and Rep. Eric Swalwell is one of 10 or so without enough name recognition to be easily distinguishable from the others. Here’s a tip: Watch the YouTube video I just watched, and you’ll never confuse Swalwell for any of the other white guys with two-syllable last names ever again.

By the time he was elected to Congress, Swalwell had developed a well-documented taste for lowbrow spectacle. As a student at the University of Maryland in 2003, he created the character of “Bahama Bob” to protest proposed tuition hikes, riding around in a golf cart wearing a Hawaiian-print shirt, board shorts, and a black wig that resembled the thick hair of then–Gov. Bob Ehrlich. (The Republican governor had embarked on an island vacation as the state of Maryland prepared to implement deep budget cuts.) And in 2012, when Swalwell’s political opponent—a congressional incumbent that Swalwell would go on to defeat—refused to debate him, he got a gussied-up actor to play the role instead.

The congressman that Swalwell ousted in 2012 was Pete Stark, an 80-year-old who’d held the office for 40 years. (Stark had already served four terms by the time Swalwell was born.) A city councilmember in Dublin, California, Swalwell saw an opportunity to challenge the very liberal Stark from the center left thanks to two major changes in the state’s election system. First, California started advancing the top two vote-getters in every primary regardless of their party. Second, Stark’s Bay Area district was redrawn so that half his constituents were new to him, with no loyalty to his 40 years of service.

Stark tried to dismiss Swalwell as a joke. The baby-faced councilmember was only 31, with a hairdo that was part fauxhawk, part that gelled-up-in-front situation all millennial boys had in seventh  grade. Stark’s campaign manager took to calling the challenger “young Swalwell” and sent out a mailer that included a photo of Swalwell holding up a Fisher-Price doodle board.

When Stark tried to drive home the silliness of Swalwell’s bid by declining to debate him, Swalwell countered with a publicity stunt. His campaign staged a faux debate with an actor filling the role of Stark. The ersatz Stark looked like a teenager playing an old fogey in a high school play: ill-fitting suit, white spray-painted hair, low-riding spectacles, fake bushy eyebrows. Filmed with all the production quality of a local public-access show, the mock debate featured a ridiculously serious, scrubbed-up Swalwell facing off against a sputtering, indignant “Pete Stark” who answered every question with actual Stark quotes.

While the young woman who fake-moderated the fake debate puts on an air of fake professionalism, the video is clearly Swalwell propaganda. “Stark” gets hit with probing questions about his residence in Maryland and his young children’s collection of Social Security benefits (totally legal and normal for kids with old parents!), while Swalwell gets such hardballs as, “How do you feel about tax credits for clean energy research, development, and production?”

Even so, what’s remarkable about this debate is that Swalwell isn’t the clear winner. Despite the fact that he knew the questions in advance, he delivers his monotone answers as if he’s reading aloud from a script he’s never seen before. In a write-up of the video, the East Bay Citizen warned, “Those hoping to invest 12 minutes of their life with the expectation for a payoff in laughter or poignancy will be disappointed here, because there are none.”

I’m not sure how many voters saw the mock debate before the 2012 election, which Swalwell won by about 4 percentage points; the video has fewer than 2,000 views on YouTube. But today, with Swalwell’s presidential bid most likely poised to end before it begins, this embarrassing skit from not so long ago stands as a testament to both his outsize ambition and his innate lack of charisma. It also offers a timeless lesson for Swalwell and his fellow forgettable Dems: If you can’t make a splash with your platform or personality, it might be time to get weird.