Gubernatorial debate not very informative

Politics for voters with short attention spans

The first televised debate of the governor’s race was a triumph of sound bites over substance.

The format of the debate on WBZ-TV (Channel 4) was designed to get the candidates sparring – and it worked. Moderator Jon Keller would throw out a question and then let the candidates kick it around however they wanted. It occasionally made for good TV, but it wasn’t very informative for voters. Indeed, the candidates did little more than trumpet their main campaign themes and pursue their own individual debating strategies.

Republican Charles Baker repeated again and again his call for tax relief and wholesale reform on Beacon Hill. Baker needs to make the campaign a two-way race, so he spent most of the debate criticizing the eight tax increases enacted under Gov. Deval Patrick, the Democratic front-runner. He also took some shots at the independent candidate Tim Cahill, whose campaign is probably costing Baker a lot of votes.

Patrick, meanwhile, sought to portray himself as a politician who has struck a balance between cutting government spending and investing in initiatives that he hopes will lead to economic growth. He spent much of the debate going after Baker (“It doesn’t mean you’re evil because you have a different set of values,” he told the Republican at one point) and propping up Cahill, who he desperately wants to remain in the race.

Cahill, for his part, sought to portray himself as a conservative, pro-business alternative to Baker and Patrick. He said people have lost faith in government and in Republicans and Democrats. “We’ve got to start listening to people,” he said. “People are angry.”

Overall, there was a lot of bluster from the candidates and very little substance. Patrick again criticized Baker for developing the financing plan for the Big Dig, which the governor called “a great big albatross around the neck of the people of the Commonwealth.” Baker’s plan relied heavily on borrowing against future federal funds, an approach that kept the project afloat but sapped money from other state transportation projects. Bakder minimized his involvement with the Big Dig and suggested Patrick was using the same financing approach for today’s infrastructure projects, a charge Patrick denied.

What would have been interesting is to explore this issue in greater detail. How would Patrick have financed the Big Dig? What would Cahill have done?

But the format of the debate offered no opportunity to explore issues in depth. It was politics for voters with short attention spans. Patrick, for example, said his administration had consolidated more government operations than Republican governors for whom Baker worked in the 1990s.

“Name one,” Baker interjected.

Patrick said he had consolidated several economic development agencies with legislation signed into law this year. “That was a bunt, when we should be swinging for the fences,” Baker said.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

“You’ve never even swung at the ball,” Patrick fired back.

Jill Stein, the Green-Rainbow Party candidate, summed up the exchange pretty well. “This is the kind of bickering we’ve come to expect on Beacon Hill,” she said.