Analysis: Snappy Gov's Debate Leaves No Decisive Winner

 

Tuesday, Sept. 20 2010
by Adam Reilly, Greater Boston
BOSTON — On Tuesday night at WGBH's Brighton studios, the four candidates for Massachusetts governor squared off in the second of three televised debates.

If you've been following the race, you know the basic framework has been fixed for weeks. Democratic incumbent Deval Patrick holds a tenuous lead over Republican Charlie Baker. State treasurer and Democrat-turned-independent Tim Cahill is a distant third — but still has enough support to change the race's outcome. Meanwhile, Green-Rainbow candidate Jill Stein is way back in fourth, teetering on the verge of irrelevancy. Nothing happened tonight to alter that picture, because no candidate emerged with a decisive victory.
 
Let's start with Baker, who some (including my colleague Emily Rooney and my former colleague at the Boston Phoenix David Bernstein) have pegged as the debate's clear winner. Baker certainly had his moments.  His denunciation of the Patrick Administration's shift from local to national educational standards was convincing. So was his smackdown of  Cahill when the treasurer accused him of unfairly representing him as complicit in the Patrick Administration's (alleged) financial misdeeds. "He's the CFO of the Commonwealth," Baker said incredulously, "and he has nothing to do with it?"

What's more, Baker's frustration with the status quo was modulated throughout . He was intense, but not too intense — which should keep that absurd "Charlie Baker = Angry Candidate" narrative from gaining increased traction.
 
Problem was, Baker also got mired down in a highly technical debate with Patrick, focused on whether the financing scheme Baker developed for the Big Dig during the Weld and Cellucci Administrations was the same as Patrick Administration's current financing scheme for bridge repair in the Commonwealth. (Dry stuff, I know.)

Baker says he borrowed from anticipated future revenues to pay for the present, just like the governor; Patrick says Baker used money meant for one thing to pay for something else. Most people who watched tonight's debate probably couldn't say who's right — and I don't think the Patrick camp minds that at all. From Patrick's perspective, Charlie Baker loses any time he ends up talking about the Big Dig, which is exactly what happened tonight.
 
The candidate with the most to prove this evening was Cahill, whose chances of making a jump from spoiler to contender keep getting slimmer. And despite seeming nervous early on, the treasurer managed to get off what may have been the single best salvo of the night. In the debate's second half, Baker asked Cahill to explain why the state's unfunded pension liability had increased $10 billion under his watch — and why MA isn't capping public-employee pensions or increasing the retirement age.
 
These are reasonable questions, but Cahill somehow reframed and reversed them so they blew up right in his rival's face. Public employees pay into the pension fund, Cahill lectured, and they depend on this money when they retire; just because you're a millionaire and don't need that kind of extra security doesn't mean you should throw them under the bus. It was a blatant play for the aggrieved middle-class vote, but it was also very, very effective.
 
This exchange wasn't just good for Cahill. It was also good for Patrick, who got to watch his top two challengers beat up on each other for a few minutes without uttering a word. By and large, it was that kind of night for the governor. With the exception of the aforementioned Big Dig back-and-forth, Patrick seemed largely content to skate above the fray, secure in the belief that his record will speak for itself. The governor also came armed with one especially heartening factoid, for his campaign and for the state: Massachusetts, he reported proudly, is now tops in the nation in new job growth. That's not a bad point to be able to make on the campaign trail.
 
And what of Jill Stein? Well, the Green-Rainbow candidate's best moment tonight came when Cahill asked how she or anyone else could oppose casino gambling in Massachusetts. She responded with as sharp a denunciation of gambling's social costs as I've heard. Still, it often felt like Stein's presence was an impediment to a conversation the other three candidates really ought to be having between themselves.

I'm a fan of Stein's, and I respect her smarts and integrity. But it seems reasonable to suggest that, as the election draws closer, the bars for debate participation be raised accordingly. When Stein first made the ballot, she belonged in the media conversation and the debates. But those days are gone.  

More:

>> View transcript of live Web chat on the debate, with Reilly and other panelists
>> WGBH Election Coverage: Mass Decision 2010
 

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