Corrected post: Brown, Warren debate; Gregory the loser

After last night’s Brown-Warren debate at UMass Lowell, co-sponsored by the Boston Herald, supporters of the two spilled into parking lots outside Tsongas Arena, arguing over which candidate won, but they were agreed that the clear loser was moderator David Gregory. As Dan Kennedy observed, it was “a miserable performance.” Gregory spent a third of the time on Warren’s Cherokee heritage and the two lawyer-candidates’ client lists, failing in the latter instance to probe intelligently the public significance of clients they represented.

After inviting Brown to challenge Warren’s character, Gregory allowed Brown to skate away from his own history of exaggerations.  In what would become a pattern, Gregory repeatedly let Brown pivot away from answering direct questions. The moderator cut off Warren, permitting Brown to stump speech mini-filibuster. When she got to speak, she largely limited herself to her talking points.  Before the debate went live, Gregory asked the 5000-plus audience to “please respect the quality of the debate.”  Would he had done his part.

He gave short shrift to immigration reform, energy independence, Afghanistan and the Supreme Court, where the two differ significantly. He could have asked Warren to comment, from a consumer protection perspective, about critical flaws in Brown’s proudest achievements, his bills on crowd-sourcing and legislative insider trading.

Better Gregory had started with Brown’s claim to be a thoughtful independent, more committed to bipartisanship than marching in “lockstep” with partisan Republicans.  How does Brown explain the disconnect between the message in his national fundraising pitch and his in-state rhetoric? Gregory could then have followed up by probing why Massachusetts would or would not be better served by a tough consumer advocate, with a distinct perspective on the economy and relatively little sophistication on foreign affairs.

Gregory spent too much time trying to connect Brown to Mitt Romney.  He should have focused on Brown’s disingenuous statement that he hadn’t decided whether to support Mitch McConnell as party leader next year. Could he really vote for Harry Reid instead? Is there an insurgent Republican he’d prefer? If he is so independent, why not run as one, as have Angus King, Bernie Sanders and Joe Liberman?  If he ran as an independent, with which party would he caucus? Does he think it would be better to have the current group of Republicans than Democrats chair committees on women’s health,environment, Medicare and foreign relations?  Gregory could have asked of Warren similar questions about Democratic Party loyalty and the Obama agenda.

The candidates had an opportunity to talk about the economy, jobs and taxes, but neither was pushed to explain the details and logic undergirding their claims.  Brown’s checkered voting record is key to the campaign. When Warren pushed on it, Brown got off the soundbite of the debate, “Excuse me, I’m not a student in your classroom.” Despite boos and applause, this was not a Rick Lazio moment.  It was just a recycling of his snarky “I’m not in your court room” line from his Martha Coakley debate.  Its rudeness further chips away at Brown’s nice guy facade.

The choice moment for Warren was Brown’s answer to who is his model Supreme Court justice. After a long pause, his answer “Justice Scalia,” elicited a gasp from the audience and prompted him to dance leftward, adding Roberts, Kennedy and, unconvincingly, Sotomayor.  Warren’s choice, Elena Kagan, according to Brown’s Senate vote, didn’t deserve to be on the court at all.

Gregory’s final frolic of quick questions were time wasters and more stupid than Barbara Walters asking an interviewee what kind of tree they would be. Warren did manage  a good response to a question about why Massachusetts has never had a woman Senator or Governor, that she was trying to do something about it.  As to the question of whether Bobby Valentine should be replaced, Brown even ducked that one.  Warren was pushed into saying “give him another year,” (ugh) but could have done better couching it as “I’m for protecting jobs; give him another chance with a healthy team.”  Also a stupid waste of time.

Much will be made of Warren’s blunder citing Richard Lugar as an example of a Republican she could work with, with both Brown and Gregory jumping on the face that he won’t be in the Senate.  Still, in an answer to a different question, Brown cited both Lugar and Olympia Snowe (now retiring) as colleagues he works with for positive change.  Gregory failed to note that half Brown’s examples won’t be around next year, in an increasingly partisan Senate.

David Gregory wasn’t the only loser last night.  The biggest were undecided or ambivalent voters eager to understand what Scott Brown’s self-defined bipartisanship might really mean for our state and country.

I welcome your comments in the section below.

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