Thursday, October 7, 2010

The debate that wasn't

The other night in Holliston we were supposed to have a debate. The chairs of the Holliston Democratic Town Committee and the Republican Town Committee had actually put together a common effort to host a forum for the candidates for Lieutenant Governor. The competing contenders were supposed to show up, introduce themselves and take questions from the audience, maybe even each other. I was actually quite proud of my town and my DTC for having advanced the idea, as Democratic Chair Beth Greely described it in her opening remarks, the idea of a basic civil civic conversation, where the differences of approach are acknowledged, but also something of the common goals.

But as we all know there can sometimes be something of a slip betwixt the cup and the lip.

It was just last week we learned that we wouldn't have a Lt. Governor candidate from the Cahill campaign. Holliston's own Paul Loscocco put the kybosch on that one. (Enough said.) And then it was just the day before the event that we learned Lt. Governor Murray wouldn't make it... a scheduling conflict. So it was that we ended up the night of the event with a debate where only one candidate was there to speak. Senator Richard Tisei did show up (and I credit him for that) and so in fairness to him he was afforded a few minutes to stump for the Baker-Tisei campaign and then take questions from the audience. He took a few softballs thrown underhand in the middle of the plate from supporters, but even the questions from those more critical and skeptical of his candidacy (myself included) never rose to the level of debate. There was no one present (on stage and with a microphone) to follow up on and challenge his answers, question his contentions. I was reminded of those one-sided conversations one has with one's dentist —after he has numbed your mouth and filled it with the contents of his toolkit.

My attempt was this: I pointed out that candidate Baker, in one of the ealier televised gubernatorial debates, had been pretty darned dismissive of the ethics reform bill Governor Patrick signed last year. Baker had said it was essentially too little, too late...obviously not enough. I remembered that a certain Senator Tisei, someone very much resembling the Lt. Governor candidate, had actually published an op-ed applauding the bill back when the Governor signed it into law. I tried for a laugh and asked if this was an indication of a rift within the Baker-Tisei campaign —if he was considering coming over to endorse Patrick. (No such luck by the way.) But my follow was of a more serious nature. I asked him to cite just one policy initiative of the Patrick administration that he did applaud and support and would want to follow up on in a Baker-Tisei administration.

He sidestepped the policy question altogether in my estimation. He said that, like Patrick and Murray, he hoped to continue showing up at funerals for fallen Massachusetts servicemen.

Now, of course that's a perfectly laudable and reasonable practice to continue —and of course it completely evades the intent of my question. And believe me I know this is not the first and only politician to evade a reasonable question in the course of this political season. But up out of the dentist's chair I have to say how frustrating it is when we come around to campaign season and the candidates can't credit even an ounce of respect for their opponents' ideas or views.

I have no way of knowing whether Tim Murray would have handled a comparable question with any less spiteful reserve. He wasn't there. I do recall that when candidate Patrick was asked the same question back in '06 he pointed to some of the Romney administration's Smart Growth initiaives that were worthwhile and should be considered further, maybe even funded. We might have a worthwhile conversation where we challenge the Governor for not following through on that comment in any measurable way. He might have valid reasons and he might not. That would be interesting to hear. It would be an actual discussion of policy with real implication for the citizens of this commonwealth.

It would be real debate.

I think that's the point of my complaint here, that we missed having a real debate the other night in Holliston was disappointing —I'm sure it was probably disappointing no matter what perspective you started off with—but in some ways we have been lacking that better debate all along —even in the fare we're served on TV with all the candidate's present. We get caricature and dismissal of our opponents' views, maybe a little ad hominem from time to time, but so precious little candid discussion where those common goals of a community are addressed constructively, where we are maybe even trusting of the other's intentions —even if only for the sake of argument, a better argument.

We're into the election contest now and it is probably not a realistic time to hope for a better discussion from our candidates. Any and all communication the next four weeks is going to be more strategic than candid. Maybe somewhere down the line we'll get past that opacity to where we talk with each other, rather than at or around.

I'm still proud of the debate we tried to have the other night, though, right here in our town. We did have Republicans and Democrats, as just plain citizens, working together to put together the event. People of differing views wanting to be heard, but also just maybe willing to listen to each other. I think the folks who set up the tables and chairs, and who put them away when "The Debate That Wasn't" was over, ultimately brought what mattered most, maybe just the beginning of a willingness —and a lot more than any candidate who showed or didn't show.

Anyway, it was a start.

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