The WBZ gubernatorial debate Tuesday evening started to reveal the friction heating up between Charlie Baker and Martha Coakley, but the tension really rose Wednesday morning at a Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce forum.
So … I’m really sorry to put this image into your head, but I can’t let myself be the only one picturing Baker and Coakley as Sam and Dianne heading for an inevitable final debate moment straight out of the classic first-kiss episode of Cheers (described at this link by sitcom maven Robert David Sullivan):
Coakley: You disgust me! I hate you!
Baker: Are you as turned on as I am?
OK let’s hope that doesn’t happen. But give Coakley some real credit. She’s been very comfortable on stage and refuses to yield when pressed.
Baker has also been composed, disciplined, and on-message. He effectively pokes at Coakley’s actual plans as vague or unrealistic; emphasizes the need for a strong manager to fix problems; and plays up the perils of one-party dominance on Beacon Hill. He comes across quite a bit like a CEO addressing his board of directors—and those directors, I suspect, would end the meeting feeling confident that he has things well under control.
A couple of problems for him, however. One is that voters are not directors, and many have more than a touch of distrust of CEOs who have earned the trust of the board of directors. This was Baker’s problem in the 2010 debates: he kept insisting on a sort of PowerPoint view of Massachusetts, while Deval Patrick spoke of values, and heart, and the face of some guy in Quincy who had been out of work for 18 months.
In all of that, Baker—for all his looseness and good-Charlie routine on the campaign trail—looks exactly the same in these debates as he did in the ones back then. Check the tape, Charlie: they’re not seeing that smile you wanted to show them. And more importantly, they’re seeing the bean-counting technocrat, not someone who connects with them.
The contrast with Coakley was clear during the WBZ debate, although blunted by the inclusion of three independent candidates. It was much starker at the Chamber forum (which I viewed via WBUR livestream). Coakley quite forcefully, if not quite explicitly, portrayed herself as the wrong candidate for the Chamber audience; she wants to raise the minimum wage and mandate earned sick time; she’s wary of Baker’s beloved corporate tax breaks, which she calls “trickle down”; she criticizes his salary at Harvard Pilgrim; and she repeatedly looks to the “human face” side of the equation, painting Baker as the guy who sees only the balance sheet.
In a more specific problem for Baker, everything is now taking a back seat to the controversy over the RGA-backed TV ad attacking Coakley over DCF problems. Again, what was awkward in WBZ studios Tuesday night soared to Sam-and-Dianne level tension at the one-on-one Chamber stage. Baker has decided not to denounce the ad, insisting that it raises legitimate questions about Coakley’s defense against a lawsuit.
Baker does a fine job laying out that case, but I just don’t see how he doesn’t lose ground every moment this plays out between the two of them. Her rebuttal is strong: the judge threw the suit out as meritless, so paying a multi-million-dollar settlement would have be a pretty dumbass move, Charlie.
But in truth, most voters—while absolutely horrified by the DCF situation—don’t really feel well-equipped to parse the merits of arguments in obscure briefs from some now-closed court proceeding. And since most of them think Coakley has been a pretty good DA and AG, whether or not they think she should be governor, it seems likely that they’re going to trust that she was doing the right thing for the kids, and not believe the CEO guy saying otherwise.
I think Baker is trying to frame this as part of the one-party problem: Coakley wasn’t part of solving the problem, because she was part of covering it up for her fellow Democrat Deval Patrick. But he can’t quite say that explicitly, because it sounds really awful; so he’s doing a whole “nobody’s questioning your commitment to the children, but…” dance that isn’t really working. Meanwhile, as Chamber forum moderator Bob Oakes pointed out, the ad showing empty playground swings and blaming Coakley for failing to protect those kids is still airing. By not denouncing it, Baker has tied himself to it, so that “nobody’s questioning…” sounds like the worst kind of hiding while letting the Super PAC do his dirty work.
Sure, Baker’s right that Coakley’s guilty of hiding behind Super PACs too. But at the moment, she’s doing it more effectively, and that’s what counts in politics.
And besides, we know that when Sam and Dianne are fighting about Super PACs, they’re really just covering their feelings for each other. Will they or won’t they? Tune in to the next debate to find out!
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