Fourth congressional district candidates Sean Bielat (R) and Joe Kennedy III (D) finally met in their only televised debate, on Channel 5’s On the Record. It’s hard to know how many viewers they had, but it’s easy to see how foolish Joe Kennedy has been in avoiding face-to-face televised debates.
While Kennedy initially came across as young and inexperienced, with a seemingly nervous little cough, he held his own against a smoother Bielat, clearly strengthened by his run against Congressman Barney Frank two years ago. Most importantly, Kennedy scored points against Bielat among those who care about women’s reproductive rights and about avoiding cuts in Medicare.
Bielat, a “right to life” advocate, would overturn Roe v. Wade legislatively, imposing abortion and family planning restrictions at the state level. He also favors the Blunt Amendment on access to birth control. Kennedy stays with Roe v. Wade and supported the Obama administration compromise facilitating women’s access to birth control.
Bielat favors the current version of the Ryan budget approach to Medicare, providing seniors a choice between their current plan or a voucher-approach to a Medicare-approved HMO-type plan. Kennedy says the Ryan approach would end up costing some $6400 for seniors to receive the same level of service, fundamentally altering Medicare.
On the matter of job creation, Bielat said the private sector is more efficient. He would stimulate jobs through tax relief. Kennedy cited the problems of small businesses, noting they would be encouraged to invest if they had confidence in a stable plan of spending cuts and revenue increases. He also spoke of the need for a better educated workforce, especially through community colleges.
On foreign policy, discussion centered on Iran, with slight rhetorical, but unclear substantive differences.
The debate time and format limits didn’t permit any in-depth questioning or opportunities for the candidates to go beyond articulating well prepared sound bites. I’d have liked to hear the candidates asked and articulate what specific sacrifices should be called for to make life better for the next generation.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Kennedy would be an even stronger candidate if he were to debate more. Barney Frank’s old 4th congressional district, recently redrawn, is now decidedly less liberal, but Beilat’s candidacy is an uphill battle, given Obama at the top of the ticket and the Kennedy name and money. However, Bielat’s attempt to do what Attorney General Eddie McCormack did to Ted Kennedy in 1962 – (“If your name were Edward Moore, not Edward Moore Kennedy, your candidacy would be a joke”) – didn’t work. Kennedy was prepared for that, and poised.
Kennedy isn’t the only politician with an unrealistic sense of what and when he needs to communicate in a debate format. He is an attractive candidate, made less so by his apparent unwillingness to go toe to toe on television. Long time Congressman Frank didn’t play the traditional incumbent role of ducking his opponent; he debated Beilat nine times in 2010.
Joan Vennochi has said it best. “Bielat’s opponent isn’t an incumbent; he’s just running like one.” In person, Kennedy is humble and open. His unwillingness to debate projects an arrogance and sense of entitlement. He’s a better candidate than that, and he proved it in his only televised debate.
Political junkies may have heard enough from all the candidates and feel November 6th can’t come soon enough. But many people don’t start paying attention till after Labor Day. So here we are. There are plenty of differences on issues separating Kennedy from Bielat, (and, in the 6th district, from John Tierney and Richard Tisei). Voters need to hear them. They also need to hear the non-policy differences and see the candidates revealed fully, warts and all, and be able to make up their minds based on what is of paramount concern to them.
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