Let’s Agree to Call the First Mayoral Debate a Dress Rehearsal

It's a good thing for John Connolly and Marty Walsh that no one was watching.

This was a good idea, in hindsight, to have a dress rehearsal, warm-up, spring training debate of sorts. Neither John Connolly nor Marty Walsh has ever participated in anything close to this sort of high-stakes political live theater before, so they both needed to work through the butterflies and kinks. They got the chance to do that yesterday with nobody watching, thanks to the unlikely success of this season’s Red Sox, the quirks of the Major League Baseball playoff schedule, and a convenient second-inning power-outage delay that ensured the tense, 1-0 thriller would continue well past the debate’s 7 p.m. start time.

The two candidates carefully walked through the act of debating, but it never quite gained the energy of the real thing.

Connolly dutifully articulated his command of the subject matter. He had trouble, however, exhibiting emotive behavioral traits triggering empathetic viewer response—or, “being likable,” which is a weird thing to have to train oneself to do for a one-hour live performance. Good thing for the dress rehearsal.

Walsh had the most passive debate strategy ever attempted by a candidate not leading by at least 20 points in the polls. He clearly was not going to make any criticism of his opponent, or even allow any policy distinctions to be drawn between them. (Walsh pointedly declined, twice, to articulate differences between him and Connolly; his campaign nevertheless sent a post-debate email to supporters titled “Important differences.”) The idea, presumably, is to eliminate policy as the demarcation point, freeing voters to choose the more relatable Walsh; unfortunately, he was only occasionally effective at conveying that part of his appeal.

They both were strategically aligned with what I predicted immediately after the preliminary: that Connolly would try to win on policy and vision, while Walsh would try to win on his working-class personal background (in contrast with Connolly’s privileged one).

And, that both would try to narrow the perceived gap on the other’s turf. Hence, in the post-debate press availabilities, Connolly took questions flanked by his wife, Meg—likable! relatable!—who also stars in the campaign’s new ad; and Walsh did so with John Barros at his shoulder—smart! policy-oriented!—after a week of rolling out minority and progressive endorsements.

At that press availability, Walsh also learned that if he tries evading the topic of his labor ties and arbitration bill, Janet Wu will lead a mighty phalanx of journalists against him, demanding satisfaction. That’s a good lesson to learn in dress rehearsal.