Marty Walsh took his overly cautious, make-no-waves re-election campaign into the potentially risky venue of live televised debate Tuesday — the one and only time he has deigned to do so. As befitting his re-election strategy, the mayor deployed a prevent defense throughout the 60-minute encounter, blandly hitting his marks, reciting his talking points, rebutting accusations while making none of his own, and saying nothing memorable or noteworthy. 

With a mammoth lead in the polls, a generally happy electorate, and a cash-strapped opponent, Walsh has spent all year running out the clock until Nov. 7. He has postponed potentially controversial decisions on everything from police body cameras to school consolidations, not to mention personnel changes. He has made few campaign promises, ducked debates, and advanced few messages or themes. He has done barely any advertising, while sitting on some $4 million of campaign funds. The entire campaign strategy seems to be preventing anybody from noticing that there is a campaign. 

This one debate with his opponent, City Councilor Tito Jackson, was necessary only to avoid the potential controversy of doing none.  

Walsh held steady through the hour, answering criticisms from both Jackson and the moderators competently and confidently.  

But, not much more than that. 

On housing costs, Walsh rattled off the data in which he takes justifiable pride, but which polling shows does nothing to ease widespread pessimism. Confronted by Jim Braude with polling that a mere third of black Bostonians see their city as a place where people like themselves can succeed, Walsh dryly ticked off unemployment data and numbers of diverse city hires. And on it went.  

His year of avoiding controversy added to the problem: Walsh had no big plans to describe, no bold moves to enthuse over. 

Jackson’s sharpest criticisms highlighted this lack of apparent urgency or imagination. The mayor’s studies and commissions, Jackson said, are “paralysis by analysis.” Walsh’s citywide dialog on race, first announced in early 2015, has become more of “a monologue versus a dialogue,” the councilor charged. And, he said, Walsh “fast-tracks” plans of outsiders, such as the Olympics, IndyCar, and GE, but “slow-tracks” ideas that would help Boston students. 

“Timid, tepid leadership,” Jackson concluded. 

Not that Jackson was really playing rough. He walked a fine line, advocating for the need to do better for the citizenry, but not getting nasty enough to harm his own future in the city — or to prompt Walsh and his allies from going negative against him. 

But Jackson’s debate performance felt almost incidental. He served almost as a third moderator, taking turns with Braude and Margery Eagan lobbing criticisms for Walsh to counter.  

That made for a good democratic exercise — though surely nothing to dramatically change the dynamic of a lopsided election, in which the challenger is out of debates, very low on money, and quickly running out of time. 

When Jackson’s time runs out, and Walsh presumably wins the re-election he has so cautiously worked to ensure, perhaps then he will feel free to launch the types of bold initiatives and controversial changes that he is so carefully avoiding now. The city can only hope.