Regular reader and sometimes contributor Mike Luciano attended last night’s US Senate debate at UMass Lowell and offers the following observations:
After witnessing firsthand the Senatorial debate among Democratic candidates at UMass Lowell’s Durgin Hall, I compiled the following assessment. Although I hate the fluffy, personality-driven aspect of American politics and prefer substantive policy discussions, I will nonetheless accept this paradigm in order to offer the following assessment of the competitors (in alphabetical order).
Tom Conroy, The Professional Politician: You know a person is serious about running for office in Massachusetts when they continuously make Kennedy-esque hand gestures during a debate. You know, the quasi-fist perpendicular to the floor with the thumb on top? That was Tom Conroy tonight. His answers were smooth and direct. Definitely a candidate built for comfort. Said all the right things. He’s playing not to lose, but given his underdog status, he must play to win.
Marisa DeFranco, The Hammer: I loved Marisa DeFranco’s performance tonight. So much so, that I’d say she won it. Seriously. I walked into that debate hall tonight a big Elizabeth Warren supporter, which I still am, but DeFranco beat her on passion and substance. When DeFranco was skewering Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and the federal government for making cheap money available to Wall Street banks (she mentioned Goldman Sachs—Obama’s number one private campaign donor—by name, which even Warren didn’t do), I felt like she was talking directly to me, and everyone else who knows that the largest financial institutions have a stranglehold on our government and economy. This woman knows what she’s talking about and knows how to get her message across.
Alan Khazei, The Campaigner: In response to a question about marijuana legalization, Khazei began by going bizarro Bill Clinton, saying, “I did inhale and I enjoyed it.” Such candor was greatly appreciated by the crowd, especially when he hadn’t even been asked if he had personally smoked weed. But then he proceeded to say that it should not be legalized, meaning that he thinks he should have been fined or arrested for engaging in that activity, which he felt was a light enough manner to joke about. Odd. Also, his closing statement, like everyone else’s sounded canned, but his in particular sounded exactly like a campaign commercial. During his close, I almost had to rub my eyes to make sure that Alan Khazei was saying those words in person, rather than some video projection. It was a really weird moment.
Bob Massie, The Policy Wonk: Came in a close second behind Marisa DeFranco’s performance. Showed great passion and knowledge of the issues. I’m too young to remember his run for Lieutenant Governor in 1994 and was expecting a stale politician, but was pleasantly surprised. He garnered some rousing applause from the younger members in the crowd. His story about overcoming Hemophilia, a liver transplant, polio, smallpox, and bubonic plague were inspiring. All joking aside, this man would make for a damn good U.S. Senator. He seems like a genuinely good human being.
Herb Robinson: The Everyman: Herb hit a couple of home runs on the field of funny, but several of his answers were awkward and not topical. He described himself as “a regular guy.” Whenever it was his turn to respond, you could literally hear the audience squirming with discomfort in their seats in anticipation of his answer. The apprehension was that palpable, and I got the sense that everyone was pulling for Herb to get through it, even though he wasn’t necessarily their candidate. His most memorable moment came when a student panelist asked if any of the candidates had ever driven under the influence of alcohol. Five of the candidates said, “No.” But Herb, in the interest of total disclosure replied, “Not according to the legal definition.” And that response, my friends, shows you what an honest man Herb Robinson is. He could’ve said “no” like everyone else, even though no doubt, at least a couple of those candidates had driven home after a Christmas party or two in which they had a BAC of more than .08. But not Herb. He’ll tell you that he’s never driven under the influence of alcohol “according to the legal definition,” but he sure as hell won’t say that he’s never operated a motor vehicle with a BAC of upwards of 0.079.
Elizabeth Warren, The Intellectual: Warren didn’t make any waves tonight, and why would she? She’s the frontrunner here. No need to say anything “crazy,” like that she’d support the legalization of marijuana, which she didn’t. Warren kept invoking the plight of the middle class as a rallying cry and it certainly seemed to resonate. But I was a little disappointed because she spoke in the language of generality rather than substance. Clearly she is capable of going deeper into the issues, but perhaps was reluctant, lest her responses come off sounding esoteric and “elitist.” But the audience was intelligent, and I think we would have appreciated some more detailed responses from the professor.
All in all, it was an good debate. The audience certainly could’ve handled and would’ve appreciated a more substantive exchange (although it was still more substantive than the average Republican Presidential debate). Understandably jobs and the economy took center stage, and some candidates were more specific (Marisa DeFranco) than others (Elizabeth Warren). And the only foreign policy-related question was about withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq, which, while important, did little to help us understand any of the candidates’ views on foreign policy in general.
I guess we’ll have to stay tuned for the rest of the debates.