Odd that in political campaigns, nothing triggers more vapid posturing than the call for substantive debates. This afternoon is a big funhouse of such posturing, over who wants to be more substantive in the Boston mayoral election.
Everyone saw coming a mile away that Menino would get beat up for not wanting to participate in debates -- and with good reason, because Menino, as the cash-laden, high-polling incumbent, would gladly avoid debates if he could get away with it.
And so, Menino had barely announced that he was running before he started getting pressure about debates (most notably from the great Scot Lehigh).
The Globe, in an odd editorial after Menino's announcement, expounded on the importance of debates, but only called for Menino to debate "at least once before
the September preliminary and, assuming he finishes in the top two, at least
twice before the November final." Not exactly a grueling pace of public discourse.
Two days ago, MassVOTE -- which is leading one consortium of groups trying to set up debates and forums -- put out a press release saying that they would like to hold three debates. That led to a Globe story about the mounting pressure on Menino to do debates.
So today, Menino announced plans to do three debates, in total (not necessarily MassVOTE's) -- two before the prelim, and one after.
The positive way of looking at this is that Menino, at this very early point, is already committing to take part in multiple debates. The negative way is that Menino is trying to get out in front and limit the number of debates by setting the cap at three.
The latter was the reaction of both the Michael Flaherty and Sam Yoon camps this afternoon.
Flaherty told me that three debates is "a step in the right direction," but that "this is a different city and a different economy... Boston voters expect and deserve more in 2009."
Yoon campaign consultant Jim Spencer said that the three-debate announcement "is not acceptable to us," and that voters deserve many debates and forums throughout the city. Limiting to three debates, Spencer argues, "is an attempt to buy and control the election" by limiting the campaign to an ad war, for which the mayor has by far the most financial resources. (It's worth mentioning that the Menino campaign deposited another $80,000 of donations today.)
This is also posturing by the challengers' campaigns; they don't want to give up the debate debate, which they believe is a winner for them as long as it remains in the public eye.
No question, this was an attempt by Menino to grab hold of the debate debate, to take it off the table for a while. It was a unilateral announcement -- there are no actual "plans" for three debates, there have been no significant negotiations yet, and Menino is not even specifying what will qualify as a "debate," or if he's willing to participate in additional forums and candidate joint appearances.
In fact, when I asked Menino campaign director Emily Nowlin whether Menino was committing to three televised debates, she responded only that "debate requests are still coming in, and will be considered... [Menino] is looking forward to debating his opponents."
Of course, Menino really can't put forward many specifics yet; those details won't be decided for quite some time. But, leaving his commitment completely vague would leave Menino under constant fire about the debates until those details are worked out. So, this is not an unreasonable approach: making it clear that he's going to do debates, so that the debate debate settles down for a while. And, if down the line Menino appears to be weaseling out of that commitment, he'll have to pay for that in public opinion then.
Nevertheless, this announcement makes clear that Menino is not, shall we say, bargaining in good faith with his opponents. He has announced, as if by edict, the number of debates, before even entering into the negotiations in which the number of debates is one of the primary issues. He has also made clear that he will choose which three debate invitations he will accept -- again, something that should be part of a negotiation with the other candidates. Well, I suppose they can still negotiate whether to sit or stand.
Also, it seems a little obnoxious to make this announcement before the elections department even determines who qualifies for the ballot -- indeed, while potential candidates are out gathering signatures for that purpose. There are a bunch of wannabe candidates out there working on it; you could at least pretend that you care who will be the official, qualified candidates before you start dictating terms to them.
This could potentially backfire on Menino, however. I thought that Menino's team would use the debate negotiations to prevent Flaherty and Yoon from taking part in "ghost debates" -- in which Menino is missing, perhaps even represented by an empty chair. In negotiations, you can trade on that: if I agree to three debates, will you two agree not to accept additional debate invitations? How about if I agree that all three will be televised, and not up against Red Sox-Yankees games? etc.
But if Menino is just going to pick three invitations to show up for, what's to prevent Yoon, Flaherty, McCrea, and any other candidates from accepting additional debate invitations? And to show up and do them? And get the press to come along and write about it, and maybe even refer to the absence of "Mayor McChicken?"
That's if groups are willing to incur Menino's wrath by hosting such debates. Frankly, I hope they do. And I hope that Menino decides to show up for them to avoid the criticism. And maybe the end result could be an actual series of townhall forums, debates, and Q&As, all throughout the city, about issues of greater substance than the great debate debate.