Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Tranquil, Tense, Tight, Trivial on Your Very Stage

Kiddies, the penultimate not-really-a-debate last evening was unsatisfying. GOP Charlie Baker looked again like Bibendum the Michelin man and acted like the irritable lord of the manor. Independent Tim Cahill maintained his workingman persona but was strident and even whiny attacking Baker. Green-Rainbow Jill Stein seems lost in detail, unable to present a vision. They left Dem Deval Patrick as the calm, rational, firm one.

Host site WGBH surely will run the quarreling quartet show on its campaign page in a day or two. Meanwhile, the four campaigns are pointing to this or that minor edge, as are partisan papers and bloggers. I can't believe anyone sitting thorough this awkward hour switched allegiance.

As a disclaimer, I am no fan of the current debate-like-spectacles. They aren't debates and rob us of any real chance to get insight or even a real sense of how candidates might behave in the wilds of office. Narrowly focused, too often stereotypical questions and short answers are feel-good, think-little ploys. We need some serious debates, in which savvy, well-prepared, strongly opinionated candidates go at each other for hours, with real substance as the result. As in the previous three centuries, the voters don't have to be there or even stay awake and alert for the whole debate. The press and others cover it and reveal the resulting treasurers. These forum-style staccato exchanges don't help us.

Unfortunately, the second half hour did not show the four's superpowers. They each had chances to ask a question of one, just one, of the others at a time. Of course, they knew well in advance this would happen and supposedly applied their own and their advisers' brains to the task. Small brains brought small questions.

They need to work more crossword puzzles and perhaps meditate and daydream. These questions were chances for big victories. The four managed schoolyard taunts and efforts to embarrass instead. For perhaps the worst example, Stein brought went into the political recycling bin to pull out —ta da — tax incentives for big companies who promised MA jobs but didn't deliver. This gave Patrick a big one, the chance to point out that his administration had changed the former way of handing out incentives by adding giveback (claw-back in current lingo) terms to retrieve the money if the companies don't deliver.

As another aside (a.k.a. mini-rant), we could use Grace Ross in this race this year. Yes, she has often seemed odd and few even fantasized she could have won running for governor. Her huge plus was that she made the debates with big, pointed questions that could not be smothered with talking points. She was maieutic in the classical sense, prompting all the candidates to deliver real thinking and solid ideas. No one on stage did that or is likely to in the next and final debate-like-thingummy.

Where's the Beef?!

The first candidate to speak (by draw) was Baker, who proved himself a windbag for the whole hour. I fear this really is a class/culture issue and he can't help himself. Even though Patrick is a rich man as well, the Gov. has a believable humanity that Baker does not. Instead, he has the mien of the master. He clearly is accustomed to deference from underlings.

Unfortunately for him, no one on stage was his lackey last night. Moreover, he not only has an irritating habit of iterating "at the end of the day," but he only had a couple of talking points. For example, he fixated on "unfunded pension liability" when assailing Cahill.

Perhaps that was both a slur and an attempt to make Baker seem fiscally knowledgeable. Instead, I suspect most voters likely think how bad is that and what does that really mean. In fact, Cahill got to return that the Republican administrations left him a weak, smallish set of pension funds, which he has handled superbly, growing at record pace. Yet Baker returned to this, likely because he had little else.

Amusingly and as the Globe analysis notes, Baker tried repeatedly and failed repeatedly to paint Patrick and Cahill as co-conspirators in raising taxes. In the end, this ill-conceived ploy probably helps keep Cahill's asthenic candidacy viable, elevating him to powers he didn't have.

Fortunately for Patrick, many viewers are likely to remember only that Cahill called Baker a liar several times, using that word. Baker had unconvincing responses, while maintaining his level of pomposity.

Unfortunately for Baker, he also did nothing to remove the sense that he won't come clean about his role in the Big Dig and other Weld administration finance disasters. These continue to bedevil all of us in neglected infrastructure and hobbling debt service, including on the turnpike and MBTA.

So far, Patrick has stopped short of alleging that Baker colluded to hide the pending cost overruns and massive obligations from the Big Dig. He'd have strong arguments if he chose.

Stein remained somewhat spacey throughout. She just isn't a vision person. Her emotions may be in good places, but she did nothing to suggest she has plans and abilities to implement them.

Patrick apparently isn't going to look for a rout in November, just a re-election. His remaining cool and knowledgeable seems to be getting him there.

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1 comment:

Uncle said...

It strikes me that Baker might not have known about the cost overruns...not proper talk at the Myopia, you know. If so, that's as lousy a credential for being governor as knowing and hiding it. The man can't win on this one.