The first U.S. Senate debate between Gabriel Gomez and Rep. Ed Markey was at times painful to watch, despite the best efforts of skilled moderator Jon Keller. It struggled to reach a fluid back-and-forth and was largely lacking in zingers and, well, in unscripted passion.
That’s good news for Markey, of course, whose campaign has been in prevent mode since well before his primary victory over Rep. Stephen Lynch. It’s bad news for Gomez, who unlike his Democratic counterpart does not have the financial support of myriad special interests weaned over four decades in Washington and needs to take advantage of each of the three debates to introduce himself to the electorate at a steep media discount.
Gomez’s halting responses — you could almost see him at times conjuring up talking points — occasionally detracted from his arguments. He made some rookie mistakes, like returning to the issue of gun control — a loser for him in this election — for 10 minutes without ever clearly explaining his rationale. Markey pounced, criticizing his opponent for towing the line on the “same old stale (GOP) issues” of “assault weapons” and “high-capacity magazines.” The Gomez camp should take the cue and firm up their candidate’s explanation of his position. Markey, clearly trying to paint Gomez with broad brush strokes, also falsely accused him of wanting to “cut Social Security,” and then mumbled something about “billionaires.”
At times, Gomez seemed to be restraining himself, perhaps in reaction to backlash from his “pond scum” comments. Though Gomez was sometimes feisty, he lacked the sustained combativeness he should have brought into this face-to-face. And while he wants to avoid lapsing into the negative debating that damaged Sen. Scott Brown’s election chances last fall, a little more fire would do him good — especially when juxtaposed to the low-key strategy of Markey.
Gomez’s finest moment came during a discussion of Benghazi. Whether planned, like candidate Ronald Reagan’s “there you go again” line to President Jimmy Carter, or not, Gomez’s charge that Markey cared more about Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign prospects than about getting answers to the Benghazi stonewall resonated. Gomez should hammer this theme again in the next two debates.
Still a political novice, Gomez could be forgiven for seeming nervous at times — even though he must have steely nerves as a former carrier pilot and Navy Seal. The jitters illustrate how difficult it is to master the art of public debate. In fact, some politicians with decades of experience, those “poster boys for term limits,” still stammer and seem uncomfortable recounting a record in Washington shockingly devoid of material policy success.
Markey, for instance, stuck close to the playbook that seems to have been written by the Massachusetts Democratic Party. In almost rote fashion he spoke scornfully of Mitch McConnell, tax breaks for oil companies, and other hot button triggers he hopes will motivate liberal voters to turn out at the polls. However, this strategy, which Elizabeth Warren used in expert fashion to tarnish her challenger Scott Brown, might not be as effective against a candidate who doesn’t have a voting record to impugn. Indeed, Gomez likes to boast that he would be a “pain in the butt” at times to the GOP, and claims he has a plan for eliminating corporate tax loopholes.
During the debate, Markey did nothing to distinguish himself as a leader with an affirmative agenda for important issues like consumer protection, banking regulation, or job creation. This begs the question: Is Markey the best that the big, bad Democratic machine in Massachusetts has to offer its constituents in the long run? That remains to be seen, but during the first debate Markey did little to put to rest the theory that he is running to be a seat-warmer for 14 months.
Markey provided plenty of potential fodder for the Gomez campaign. It will be up to them to roll up their sleeves and do some research prior to the next debate on June 12. For example, Markey claimed — in vintage Dr. Evil hyperbole — to have voted for “one trillion dollars” in tax breaks for middle class families during his career. Gomez responded by stating that Markey voted to raise taxes 300 times, but didn’t address the specific claim. He needs to take that claim on directly.
Also, Gomez argued that Markey had never “authored” a bill that became law — and seemed absolutely convinced of it. Yet, Markey seemed to have a riposte by describing a handful of measures he sponsored that did become law. Frankly, I was befuddled. What seemed like an enlightening issue pertaining to legislative ineptitude fizzled in confusion. The Gomez camp should rework this line of argument to make it crisp, clear — and coherent — before the next round.
Finally, Gomez should have the data — and some specific examples — of out-of-state and special-interest donors to Markey on the tip of his tongue. For a campaign that has bloviated about the “people’s pledge” for months on end, Markey’s fundraisers shamelessly do their jobs well, and drive contributions from liberals and special interests all over the nation. Gomez should cite facts, without spin, about these contributions in the next round. They tend, intuitively, to rub voters — particularly that “middle class” the candidates were asked to define last night — the wrong way.
Markey may be breathing a little easier, but Gomez has some openings. The first debate wasn’t close to a knockout. You can also bet that Gomez will get stronger with each debate. Those who would like to see some bipartisanship in Washington and a new, competent face emerging in the Senate from our Commonwealth also have to hope he has a few surprises in store for Markey.