Governor’s Debate – sparring, with the fight to come

Contrary to the prevailing wisdom, I believe that Governor Deval Patrick came out of Tuesday night’s debate as the winner. Why? Because people are often guided by their impressions more than the substance of candidates’ arguments. Cahill proved likable enough to be Mr. Geniality to the Scott Brown crowd. And, if Cahill solidifies his support, he’s the Governor’s protection, a ticket back to the corner office.

Without Cahill, Patrick would be on the ropes. By contrast, Charlie Baker appeared testy, even occasionally nasty. The man never smiled. Patrick, coached to be firm, factual and smooth, sometimes seemed unctuous. Every time he stepped inadvertently on someone’s lines (usually Jill Stein’s), he deferred with “I’m sorry.” I can imagine someone editing the tape and putting together a negative campaign spot by patching together last evening’s repetitions of “I’m sorry,” “I’m sorry,” “I’m sorry.”

Cahill is not rooted in any coherent philosophy other than that he’s not the Republican or Democrat. “Charlie blames the Governor. The Governor blames Charlie. I want to move forward.” At one point, Patrick praised Cahill for his role in limiting school construction costs. (gracious or canny?)

The Green Party’s Jill Stein left an impression of terminal earnestness. She railed against the “immense insurance bureaucracy” and touted green jobs. She criticized tax inequities and repeatedly called for higher taxes on the wealthy, a tax policy that, in essence, would be a graduated income tax, which would require a Constitutional amendment and has regularly been rejected by voters. Stein’s approach seems limited to a few well-worn clichés. Her candidacy would be irrelevant if she, too, didn’t represent a potential spoiler of Patrick’s support if the Baker-Patrick margin continues to narrow.

On substance, both Baker and Patrick scored points. The Governor was all about what his administration has accomplished, in managing the budget, cutting state employees, improving the pension system, creating private sector jobs, consolidating state agencies (transportation, economic development, for example.), all significant accomplishments, all things that previous administrations couldn’t get done or didn’t even try to accomplish. For his part, Baker said Patarick hadn’t gone far enough in those very areas, not enough budget cuts, staff reduction, pension reforms, job creation, agency consolidation.) And it’s true that there’s much more than can be done.

Each scored in the blame game. Baker blamed Patrick for the increase in health costs. (Others, of course, praise the Governor for implementing the state’s first-in-the-nation health care law.) Patrick blames Baker, citing the 150% increase in premiums for insurance under Harvard-Pilgrim, of which Baker was CEO. Stein called for a single-payer system, and Cahill opposed the costs of the Connector Authority.

Patrick blames Baker for the cost of the Big Dig, but, at the time, the Weld administration needed to come up with a plan to pay for it, and Patrick has not said what the alternative would have been. Or, if the Weld administration had decided on higher toll increases or hiking the gas tax, how would that have gone through. Baker was in a tough spot at the time, and he got the job done.

The format was vigorous and avoided the formulaic approach that usually drags down such debates. WBZ analyst Jon Keller’s moderating was skillful, focused and generally successful. Still, we are left still needing to know the candidates’ concrete plans for an anticipated deficit that may exceed $2 billion.

Patrick has taken $4 billion out of this past year’s budget alone, on top of significant cuts in previous years’ budgets. Yes, he raised some taxes and yes, he had promised to cut property taxes four years ago. But the context is the worst financial situation since the Great Depression. He has been willing to do unpopular things (raising taxes, permitting civilian flaggers, eliminating the excesses of the Quinn bill, and it has clearly cost him union support. Baker continues to talk about cutting another 5000 jobs but doesn’t specify where they’d come from. Baker insists he would make, not just permit, municipal employees to join the Group Insurance Commission if city and town governments wish to do so. A good idea, but how exactly would he get that through the legislature?

Baker and Patrick are both smart, decent men, reflecting as much as anything else a partisan difference in priorities. Baker values tax cuts and hard-nosed application of the scalpel in the name of streamlining government. Patrick has tackled both but is more sensitive to the education, energy, and other programs that, as he puts it, hold together communities. Cahill, as I indicated, is so committed to be non-partisan that he’s all over the place.

This is going to be a very long six weeks. Mark your calendars for the next debates, September 21, October 26, with others possibly to come. And hold on to your seats; it’s going to be a white-knuckle trip.
Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

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