First Debate, And Baker's Responsibility Problem

I thought Tim Cahill did very well in last night's debate -- partly for the very reason that the Globe and Herald gave as his detriment, which was that he laid low during the most heated exchanges between Deval Patrick and Charlie Baker. One of Cahill's strategies in this campaign is to take advantage of the classic political formula: Candidate A attacks Candidate B = advantage for Candidate C. In fact, Cahill pretty much made that explicit at one point in the debate, saying "the governor blames Charlie Baker, Charlie Baker blames the governor -- what we need is solutions."

On the other hand, Cahill certainly gave a lot less in policy specifics than Baker or Patrick, and at some point he will have to show that he can join in that part of the discussion effectively.

Also, Baker got him pretty good, I thought, with the observation that just four years ago, when Cahill endorsed Patrick (nice side shot there), one of his reasons was Patrick's courage in standing up to the tax roll-back crowd -- now, running for gov himself, Cahill is all 'will of the people' when talking about the latest tax roll-back ballot initiative.

I also think Cahill must have been planning to, and forgot to, make a point in the debate about Baker's unwillingness to take responsibility for things that have gone wrong under his watch. I say this because in between the debate and the post-debate press availability someone flipped on a "Baker = no responsibility" switch in Cahill; he used the word repeatedly, saying that it was the key difference between himself and Baker. "I don't blame the lottery on Bob Crane," he said, presumably sending the younger scribes scurrying for their old Massachusetts Political Almanacs for the reference.

I think the reponsibility theme is something that's been building all year from the Patrick camp, and I think Baker keeps letting himself get painted further into it. Last night, he once again gave a really unsatisfactory answer to the Big Dig question -- saying that Patrick and Cahill had approved the exact same financing scheme for infrastructure funding. I promise you, true or not that line of defense won't work -- in the public's eyes, you cannot wash away the stain from the Original Sin of Massachusetts Politics, as I have dubbed it, by comparing it with something else. There is nothing else; the Big Dig stands alone in people's minds as a monument of malfeasance and irresponsibility, and every moment that Charlie Baker extends the conversation about his role in it is a moment he's losing votes.

This is one of the (many) ways I judge campaigns and candidates -- can they keep the conversation of the campaign on the topics that are good for them, and off the topics that are bad for them. Often, smart candidates like Baker can't refrain from the impulse of trying to explain the truth behind the topics that are bad for them -- when they should be pivoting away from those topics as quickly as possible.

By letting Patrick draw him into a pissing match over the Big Dig, Baker put his involvement in the Big Dig right into every piece of debate news coverage, and that just ain't good for him.

Baker also stepped dangerously toward the "no responsibility" trap when Patrick mentioned that Baker's Harvard-Pilgrim turnaround was assisted by "state aid." Baker denied that the company received any public state money -- and then went further in his post-debate press availability, stridently insisting that the company received "not one dime" from the state.

I'll need to go back through the details -- and I'm sure other reporters, not to mention Patrick staffers, will beat me to it -- but that's surely parsing pretty carefully when you're talking about a company that survived by going into state receivership.

I think that Baker's got to be real careful with this impression being laid out, that he won't concede any chinks in his armor. First of all, people don't much like that in a public figure.

But more importantly, if it takes hold, it could put Baker in a real bind down the road. Because then, any criticism thrown at him about the Weld administration, or Harvard-Pilgrim, or the Swampscot sewer system -- I'm just saying, any mud anyone comes up with to sling at him -- gets to stick, because Baker's defense will be criticized as just another case of refusing to take responsibility.

Ridiculous? Unfair? Let's use the Wayback Machine to drop in on this imagined private moment, circa Summer 2004:

John Kerry: Flip-flopper? Are you $%&@ kidding me? Yesterday they were saying I had the most consistent liberal record in the Senate, and today they want to paint me as a #%@* flip-flopper? Based on what, one vote? #%$& that, they'll never make that stick.

Sorry about the profanity -- probably something he picked up in Vietnam. Speaking of which:

Kerry: ...And don't worry about this &#^$ about them going after my war record -- if there's one thing the American people won't stand for, it's going after a decorated veteran's service to his country. $@#& Purple Heart, mother-$#&$s.

All's I'm sayin', is that we all know that somewhere in this great Commonwealth there's a mother ready to sob on camera about her permanently paralyzed child who would have been able to walk and talk and play if Harvard Pilgrim hadn't refused to pay for the treatment and surgery she needed when she was three months old. And Baker's opponents are unlikely, for now, to put that story out there, because the public would (rightly, I'd say) see that as an unfair attack, and not really evidence that Charlie Baker hates sick children. (Although I did notice that Patrick attacked Baker's "values" about 800 times last night.)

But if Baker gets effectively tagged as refusing to take responsibility, then you can put that story out there. Then it doesn't look like a random, unfair swipe (even if it still is) -- it looks like another example of Baker refusing to take responsibility for things that happen under his watch.

Anyway, I thought Cahill was last night's winner, and that Baker and Patrick were pretty even -- with Patrick probably getting the edge if Baker's HP 'no state aid' claim ends up getting rapped by the media.

And, as a quick aside, big kudos to Jon Keller for dispensing with the traditional candidate opening and closing statements, which are good but simply too big a time-waste for a one-hour debate (with commercial breaks).

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