WBZ performed its civic duty by including three independent candidates for governor in Tuesday’s gubernatorial debate, but the three added little to the process. It’s one thing to give everyone equal access in the early stages of the campaign, helping the independents get themselves known, make their views known, raise some money and perhaps gain some traction. With just a month left, however, with none of them coming close to garnering 10% support and especially where frontrunners Martha Coakley and Charlie Baker are separated only by the polls’ margins of error, having Jeff McCormick, Scott Lively and Evan Falchuk as equal debate participants on any more of the debates is an unwanted distraction.
So what were we able to learn from tonight’s political theater? Charlie Baker was the one with executive presence. On question after question, he had the facts; he was firm but not bullying (always a challenge when his chief opponent is a woman). He was calm and projected authenticity. Martha Coakley didn’t make any mistakes, but she seemed more to be executing her consultants’ playbooks.
At the outset, WBZ reporter Jon Keller, moderating well as always, asked what went wrong in one after another agency crisis (pharmacy, the Department of Children and Families (DCF), marijuana dispensaries, health connector) and what needs to be done . Baker, the first to answer, was unequivocal. “The Commonwealth took its eye off the ball.” Coakley’s first response was to defend the Patrick and talk about “what went right.” People don’t want to hear that. They want to know that someone is going to get in there and clean things up.
Coakley did go on to talk about her plans for DCF, but Baker’s line, “The next governor should be a weed whacker,” had much more resonance.
Keller pressed the candidates on state budget-busting health care. Falchuk pressed Coakley on the deal she struck with Partners Health Care, which many experts believe will increase already high health costs. Coakley, for her part, pressed Baker for taking a high salary at Harvard Pilgrim when premiums were going up. Obviously expecting the question, Baker didn’t get defensive but answered the only way he could (board sets the salary; it was consistent with marketplace). Coakley did give him credit for executing a massive turnaround of Harvard Pilgrim, saving people’s jobs and health coverage. In other health care discussion, no one on the stage knew more than Baker. What he conveyed was the sense that he would be best at standing up to Washington bureaucrats in the battle to have the destiny of the state’s health care system decided by Massachusetts.
Where Coakley shone was on the topic of the referendum that would repeal the indexing of the gas tax. She made a compelling case regarding its importance to the state’s investment in infrastructure, essential to economic growth. Baker insists that, if the legislature believes more gas tax revenues are needed, members should have to vote for it, rather than dodging it. That may be true in a 7th grade civics course, but historically the legislature refused to raise that tax for decades and it’s doubtful that new members will be more proactive. Baker’s been around long enough to know better. Our roads and bridges have fallen to rubble in too many places. We need to preserve that revenue.
Falchuk is the most credible of the three independents, but his top theme of how we’re ill served by Republicans and Democrats can only go so far. McCormick sees technology as the answer to nearly every question. And, while Lively may be a convenient far right foil to Baker’s moderate Republicanism, his litany– the abject immorality of anything sounding liberal and unremitting evils of big government– tires quickly. The three of them combined don’t poll at more than five percent, while a much smaller polling margin of error separates Coakley and Baker. It’s too bad it seems we’ll have to wait till October 21 for the first one-on-one televised debate (on WGBH-TV). It won’t come a minute too soon.
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