A lot of people are going to be puzzling over Scott Brown's decision to turn down a proposed debate proposed by Vicki Kennedy, the widow of the legendary previous holder of Brown's US Senate seat; and hosted by the new Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the US Senate and the University of Massachusetts-Boston.
I have a possible answer that I can sum up in three words: The Catholic Church.
Before I explain the theory -- and it is only a theory, which the Brown campaign denies -- let's examine what's happening.
Here's the situation: Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren have been discussing debate participation in nonsense, counter-productive, point-scoring ways in the media. The Warren campaign offered to meet with the Brown campaign to work out plans from the various debate proposals, but Brown declined. Hence they are acting separately; so far they have mutually agreed to two televised debates: one in Boston, hosted by WBZ; and one in Springfield hosted by a western Massachusetts media consortium. (Brown has also accepted two radio debates, which Warrenis still considering.)
The Warren campaign has also accepted invitations to two additional televised debates, one hosted by a Boston consortium (including the Globe), and one hosted by the Kennedy Institute and Vicki Kennedy. That last one has sparked the latest controversy.
Brown professed concern about the lack of impartiality with Ted Kennedy's widow, and said he would only consider doing the debate if Vicki vows to not endorse in the race -- which Vicki was obviously not going to agree to, and today she very predictably declined. Brown promptly declined the forum.
It seems very, very improbable to me that Vicki Kennedy's partisan bias was the reason for Brown's demurral. There's no reason to think a Brokaw-moderated debate, with details to be negotiated between the campaigns, would put Brown at any partisan disadvantage just because of the building and the host. Certainly Brown did just fine debating Martha Coakley at the Kennedy Institute in the 2010 race. And as Dan Kennedy tweeted today, the precedent would appear to disqualify debates sponsored by, for example, the Boston media consortium, which includes the Globe, which can be expected to endorse in the race.
No, the partisan bias was obviously the fig-leaf excuse to get out of the debate. But what actual reason was it hiding?
The obvious answer would be that Brown hopes to limit the TV debates to just the two already agreed upon (only one in the critical Boston TV market), making their impact as small as possible. That may very well be, and would hardly be an unprecedented strategy for an incumbent. But other incumbents manage to be very selective about accepting debate offers without offering up this kind of wild, news-making justification.
So, that brings me to my theory. And as I said above, this is entirely speculative, and the Brown campaign flatly denies it.
Scott Brown has, for years, bent over backward to get and keep the support of church officials and Catholic laity in the state -- it's been a critical voting block for him, and as I've written before he's been there for the church on key issues. Most recently, and notably, in his strong support for, to the point of co-sponsorship of, the controversial "Blunt Amendment" that would have given employers (particularly Catholic institutions) the right to deny health-care coverage for procedures that they have a moral or religious objection to.
So we know that Brown is eager to make Massachusetts Catholic officials happy.
We also know that Massachusetts Catholic officials are currently very unhappy with Vicki Kennedy.
Just a couple of months ago, the Worcester diocese forced Anna Maria College to rescind its invitation for Kennedy to speak at its commencement, proclaiming that "Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles."
The diocese was not specific about which fundamental moral principles the widow Kennedy defies, but the betting is that she's too soft on birth control and gay marriage for their liking.
Kennedy didn't exactly go quietly, either; she released a statement criticizing the diocese, and there was quite a considerable media storm, much of it quite negative toward the Church -- all of which got rehashed just a few weeks ago when the actual Anna Maria commencement took place, without Vicki.
So I would imagine that, from Church officials' perspective, Scott Brown accepting a major invitation from Vicky Kennedy would look like a major thumb in the Church's eye. But, it would stir up unwanted controversy to give that as the reason for turning the debate down.
I asked Brown campaign spokesperson Colin Reed whether Brown or the campaign had received any communication from Catholic Church representatives regarding the Kennedy Institute debate invitation. He checked, and gave me a definitive "no."
To me, that doesn't mean it had nothing to do with the decision. Or, that Brown couldn't get a nice boost among Catholics for doing it -- I am told that Howie Carr has already this afternoon mentioned on his radio show that Kennedy's abortion and gay-marriage views are one reason Brown was smart to decline the debate.
Perhaps my speculation is entirely misguided. It just strikes me as awfully coincidental that someone as popular and generally uncontroversial as Vicki Kennedy gets two completely unrelated high-profile disses back-to-back. So, I wonder if they are really so unrelated.