If you missed Monday night’s debate among the four Democratic candidates for US Senate, go here to check it out, then come on back.
I know they called it a debate, but the candidates, you may have noticed, never really engaged one another, except to toss the occasional mild jab — which brings me to my major observation: no one went after Martha Coakley.
Every poll I’ve seen to date has Coakley well in the lead among the four Dems, and many pundits expected the three guys to gang up on the theoretical front-runner to A) take her down a peg or two and B) build some much-needed cred for themselves, yet she escaped unscathed. I wonder if the men were hesitant to attack en masse the sole female on the roster and look like bullies — a very real concern, sadly; gender-based double standards make politics an even trickier minefield than it already is. For the guys in this situation, it was something of a lose-lose scenario: attack Coakley and risk looking like jerks, or avoid her and hope she hangs herself with her own rope.
…which she didn’t; Coakley presented herself very well in general. She was businesslike, perhaps to a fault (she was a titch wooden), mostly stayed on-topic and answered the questions as they were asked, if not necessarily directly (a fault shared by all), and parlayed her work as AG into a viable foundation for a Senate stint.
Alan Khazei often looked and sounded like he was reading off a teleprompter, or reciting carefully memorized campaign position papers. And he did not do well on his feet, as evidenced by his response to the question about how he’d respond to the possibility of military base closures (something the late Ted Kennedy successfully fought off, as evidenced by the MMR’s continued operations here on the Cape). Khazei partially answered the question, then went off on a lengthy tangent about economic and job policy.
Khazei also had a problem with speaking efficiently. He tended to over-talk his points, a sign that he had little to say, so he filled the space by repeating, with increasing emphasis, what little he did have. And we all know how well that worked out for Sarah Palin…
His most telling moment was at the end of the debate, when he challenged his opponents to weekly televised gab sessions. This is a secret code, you know. Translated, it means: “You guys are kicking my can all over the place because you’re all getting more exposure. Since I don’t have the deep pockets you guys have, let me veil my attempt to increase my face time on TV behind a seemingly noble intent to educate the voters.”
Good hustle, Alan, but I have yet to see anyone bite at that one.
Congressman Mike Capuano pushed his Congressional experience hard, which was wise because that is his greatest strength; he knows the system far better than his rivals, he has the connections that are crucial if you want to get stuff done, and he could hit the ground running. Yet that is also perhaps his greatest weakness: he’s part of a system that has been in low gear for many, many months…why should anyone believe he can affect more positive results as a Senator than as a Congressman?
On an aside: Capuano should stop throwing out that “working class joe” angle. For any established politician, especially at the federal level, to claim he’s just like one of us is disingenuous at best, insulting at worst. Read about his financial status here and tell me if he’s really “like us.” Just because you live in Somerville (official city motto: “Wickid Pissah!”), it doesn’t automatically make you Joe Six-Pack, bubbi.
Steve Pagliuca played the outsider card to mixed effect. Considering how lackluster Congress has been as of late, some fresh blood is definitely desirable and attractive to an increasingly frustrated voting public. However, Pagliuca showed his naivete (not optimism: naivete) by expecting he would somehow be able to enter the US Senate and magically turn things around. I would love to see a Mr. Smith Goes To Washington thing, but reality can be a cruel, cold splash of unwelcome reality, can’t it?
Both Khazei and Pagliuca also fell back on one of the hoary old cliches of fresh-faced “outsider” candidates: the ardent refusal to accept special interest money. Right, like anyone will admit to that? Guys, EVERYONE accepts some form of special interest money sooner or later. You would too. Don’t fool yourselves and don’t try fooling us.
I was gratified to see none of the four went bonkers painting themselves as the Second Coming of Ted. Capuano was by default the worst offender here, invoking the Kennedy name several times over the night, but never to what I would call excessively. So: no egregious grave-robbing here (although all four readily admitted that they didn’t wait for Kennedy’s seat to get cold before deciding to run).
I’m not about to opine about the candidates’ respective stances on the various issues because, to be honest, I’m still learning their positions myself, but I have to say that only once during the night did I go, “Aha! Candidate Johnson is right!” and that’s when Capuano remarked, on the topic of whether it’s better to save certain jobs (police, fire, teachers) or create new ones, that a saved job is just as vital to overall economic health as a new job.
There was little difference in their opinions on how to tackle issues such as economic stimulus, foreign affairs, and immigration reform, and in typical politician fashion they all showed a knack for delivering non-answers that sounded like answers to the untrained ear (in such cases, it’s what they’re not saying that tells the tale more than what they are saying).
Khazei distinguished himself a little by being the only one to address (and oppose) the prospect of expanded casino gaming in Massachusetts — was this really a pressing issue in the Senate race? — and Capuano broke out of the pack on the health care reform/public option issue. He carried the Kennedy torch on that one and, somewhat contemptuously, said Republican support was unnecessary to carry a health care reform bill (way to reach across the aisle Kennedy-style, dude). He disagreed with US Senator Harry Reid’s idea of giving states the choice to opt out of a government-run public option, Reid’s concession (one among many) to leverage greater support in Congress for health care reform.
So, who “won” this non-debate? According to the Coakley, Capuano, and Pagliuca camps, their respective candidates did. Each of them sent me e-mails touting their alleged wins: Capuano’s people said he proved that he was “by far the most qualified and best prepared” of the candidates; Coakley’s team said she was “the clear winner”; and Pagliuca’s mouthpieces, writing as Pags (I’m pretty sure he didn’t actually write it himself), said he was the only one who had a definite game plan for turning the economy around.
Me? I think Coakley and Capuano were the de facto winners, but more by dint of the fact the other guys were rather weak than because of their own dazzling oratories and muscular stances on the hot issues. The true test of all four candidates would have been a true debate, a head-to-head-to-head-to-head discussion amongst themselves instead of them standing at lecterns and reciting their carefully prepared rhetoric to the cameras.
We still have more than a month with the Fab Four before the December primary, so here’s to hoping that their next get-together will be more than, as WHDH-TV’s Andy Hiller so astutely put it, four simultaneous hour-long press conferences.