Thursday, October 29, 2009

Senate Debate Wrap-up: The (Thurs)day after

I’ve had a chance to mull over the senate debate and I’ve come to the same conclusion I had when I watched it: it was awful. Bad moderator, bad format, bad questions, bad video quality, you name it.

But there was an important “good” that came out of it, and that was the opportunity to see these candidates live. Sure, they’ve each done a handful of appearances and forums, but this was the first opportunity for many people to see the candidates outside of their commercials. Here are my thoughts on the candidates’ performances, in alphabetical order:

Mike Capuano was the most passionate, energetic (caffeinated?) of the four candidates. He also seemed to be the least scripted, speaking easily about the issues. While I’m sure he had prepared for the debate, he appeared to be winging it, and doing so successfully. He appeared to genuinely care about the issues.

It was nice too see the passion from him, considering that he appears nearly morose in his campaign commercials. Perhaps he is this energetic all of the time. If so, his commercials are doing him a real disservice. I came away with a much higher opinion of him than I had when the debate started.

Not that Capuano was perfect. He spent way too much time (that is, more than zero) talking about what a good “horse-trader” he is, and how his status as the only insider makes him much better equipped to deal with the workings of the Senate. Is that a plus? Yes. Does anyone want to elect a “horse-trader” to the Senate, or the State House, or selectman, or dog catcher? No. I’d suggest the word negotiator the next time this comes up.

Martha Coakley, on the other hand, was much more reserved and even. Whether that is her natural persona or whether she has trained herself to stay even-keeled, it served her well. (Unfortunately, there is still a bias out there against more animated female politicians. If she had exhibited the same “passion” as Capuano did, she’d have been characterized as shrill or scattered, not “passionate.”)

Come to think of it, I can’t think of one thing that she said that made me say “Wow, I like that Martha Coakley.” But I can’t think of anything that turned me off to her either. She was just solid. And considering that the debate itself was nearly a waste of an hour, solid was probably a very good result.

The only thing that stuck out to me as a negative was Coakley’s quip that maybe we should go and rob banks to help pay for...I don’t remember what. The Attorney General probably shouldn’t be advocating for the commission of a felony, even if it is in jest.

I really, really wanted to like Alan Khazei. This was the first chance I’ve had to see him and from what I’ve heard, he is the truest progressive in the race. I like the idea that he is not an “insider,” but has worked a number of issues on Capitol Hill. But I could not get into him at all. I appreciate that he has a great story to tell, but his father being a doctor from Iran is not relevant to every issue. I know that this is Ted Kennedy’s seat, but tying himself to one Kennedy or another in response to nearly every question (I was half-expecting references to the Rose Kennedy Greenway, Joe-4-Oil, and the Kennedy Space Center in his closing statement) made him come across as a panderer.

He seemed stiff to me, like he was trying too hard to remember his points instead of being able to discuss them easily. And I positively rolled my eyes when he ended his closing statement by challenging the other candidates to weekly televised debates. That’s straight out of Campaign Tactics for Dummies and never, ever works.

It’s too bad that Khazei filled his allotted time with anecdotes about his father and the Kennedys, because once he got going, he seemed to have a pretty good command of the topics. But moderator Peter Meade kept cutting him off, becoming more and more petulant with Khazei as the night went on (which I thought made Khazei a bit of a sympathetic figure).

Steve Pagliuca suffered from a mix of poor preparation and bad luck. He really seems out of his element speaking from behind a podium. He looks like he should be leading some sort of business seminar, walking the stage with a clip-on mike and a power point presentation on the big screen behind him. His command of the issues appears to be pretty shallow; he’s OK when he can give the stock progressive stance on this or that, but is very shaky when it comes down to the details.

Had he been in a different place on the stage he might have been able to get by with that, but he was positioned after Capuano, so in three out of every four questions he spoke after the energetic wonk. Pags spent much of the night starting his responses with “I agree with Michael,” which essentially invalidated anything else he had to add. If he had a better command of the little things, he might have been able to respond effectively.

I’m not going to get into all of the ways that the debate itself was terrible. I agree with Emily Rooney, who killed the organizers in a blog post yesterday:
The format was lame, the questions were lame, the production was lame and the result was tedious...

Virtually every rule of "don't" was broken. Don't ask everyone the same question, don't ask yes/no questions, don't ask hypotheticals, and don't use a format that doesn't allow for interaction among the candidates.
That about sums it up.
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