Tuesday, May 19, 2009

In Unprecedented Result, McAuliffe Both Wins and Loses Final Debate

The final Gubernatorial debate was tough to get a handle on, mostly because it was too short, poorly moderated and failed to permit the candidates to make cases for themselves or offer up thoughtful critiques of their opponents.

For the best coverage of what went on, and some pretty spot-on commentary of what it all meant, check out this post and this post at Blue Virginia.

For some awesome contemporaneous commentary, go check out Ben Tribbet’s tweets of the debate. I sat behind Ben at the debate, and his commentary – especially read in real-time, was devastating, illuminating and hilarious all at the same time. And, what can I say; the guy is a sharp dresser.

My first impression at the debate was that Terry McAuliffe won. In the hall, at least, Creigh seemed a little flat and Moran seemed, well, lost in the sense that with three weeks left to go in a campaign that he has been waging for three years, he still hasn’t seemed to find a consistent voice or message.

On a tactical level, Lowell’s analysis at Blue Virginia is spot on: “Creigh Deeds and Brian Moran needed a game changer in the last debate with just 3 weeks left to go, and they didn't get one. Thus, trailing in the polls, they lost.” And if Creigh and Moran lost, then McAuliffe won.

But during my drive home, I had some time to mull over the debate and the discreet moments and exchanges of which it consisted, and I came to a different conclusion: While I still thought McAuliffe won, he also lost. He got his hat handed to him by two experienced Virginia pols, he just didn’t know it.

First, let me cite the one winning McAuliffe moment that stood out as the debate’s highlight.

When it came time for his question, Creigh asked McAuliffe how he could promise so much to so many – building a gym, paying teachers mortgages, etc., when he knows budgets will be tight. The question was intended to put McAuliffe on the spot for pandering and over-promising. Before he was halfway done asking it, however, it was clear to everyone – even Creigh, I think -- that he’d made a mistake. McAuliffe thanked Creigh for the question, and took the opportunity to talk about his big ideas, about reaching for the stars. “Do you want me to get out of bed and say I’m gonna be 50th?” he said. “NO. You shoot for the moon. John Kennedy didn’t say we’re taking the rocket halfway to the moon, It goes all the way to the moon.”

Creigh is a baseball fan, so I’ll use a baseball analogy here: Creigh, you threw the guy a change-up, but he was just sitting back, waiting on it. The ensuing home run was a mere formality.

But the fact is that there were many more losing moments for McAuliffe in this debate, such as:

* Deeds’ zinger to McAuliffe on the disingenuousness of making a big deal of refusing contributions from Dominion while at the same time holding an event at the home of retired Dominion president and CEO Thomas Capps. The idea that Capps was simply an individual who happened to be a Dominion employee supporting him is ludicrous. And McAuliffe’s attempt at self-mocking humor to explain it away by saying “He didn’t even write a check” was crass.

* Moran’s comments about overturning the Marshall-Newman Amendment hurt McAuliffe in two ways. First, while Moran is obviously grandstanding the issue, he is right that if Virginia is to make progress on this critical issue, the next Governor needs to be willing to make it a priority to at least discuss it and begin the process of gathering public support behind the repeal of the Amendment. Moran’s admonition to McAuliffe that it won’t happen if you say “you don’t have the time,” even if that slightly distorts what McAuliffe actually said, is absolutely correct. McAuliffe seemed to argue that is was sufficient that he, himself, opposed discrimination. “I’m not for discrimination at all,” McAuliffe said, as if there are candidates out there running on a pro-discrimination platform.

Second, Moran’s answer came in response to a question about gay adoption, and for once, he seemed to be positive on an issue, analyzing with a forward-looking attitude rather than simply searching around for someone to hit. Not bad.

* The exchange between Moran and McAuliffe on payday lending, in my view, really hurt McAuliffe as well. I’m aware the McAuliffe camp seems to think this skirmish was a big victory for them, but they are wrong. First, the fact is that all three candidates agree that we should get rid of payday lending.

McAuliffe tries to lay the blame for payday lending at the feet of Creigh and Moran, somehow without scuffing up Mark Warner’s shoes. That’s not possible. The fact is that the 2002 legislation that brought this scourge upon our state happened despite the best intentions of people like Moran, Warner and Creigh. Call the three of them (and some of the other good legislators who voted in favor of allowing these miscreants into Virginia) na├»ve, or just plain dumb, but there is simply no way they were corrupt or wanted this to happen.

Yet, McAuliffe pretty much accused Moran of being in the pocket of the predatory lending industry when he makes a point of mentioning that Moran has received “tens of thousands of dollars” in donations from predatory lenders. It is true that Moran had received about $30K in donations, but given the timing of these donations and various other circumstances, the idea that they had any effect whatsoever on Moran’s legislative record with respect to payday lending is an absurd allegation.

To return to baseball, payday lending is a spitball, a disgusting, nasty pitch that doesn’t make anybody look good. McAuliffe would have been better off taking.

McAuliffe and his campaign have complained bitterly about the attacks from Moran in this campaign, incidentally using one of my favorite phrases straight out of the Department of Redundancy Department – “Negative Attacks.” A key component of this counter-attack by McAuliffe has been his contention that he promised he never would, and he never has, said a bad word about either of his opponents. Previously, that was a debatable proposition. Now that he has accused Moran of standing in the way of payday lending reform for $30K in donations over a 13-year period, it no longer is.

Terry McAuliffe is a negative attacker!

* The last reason McAuliffe lost this debate? His victory calculation still depends upon him soundly defeating Brian Moran in NoVA and Hampton Roads. If they split that vote, it allows Creigh to sneak in.

So, Moran’s lowlight in this debate that stuck the final dagger in his candidacy? Actually, he didn’t have one. The format, which barely gave the candidates time to speak, much less advance coherent arguments, and constant interrupting by the moderators kept Moran safe from his worst enemy, namely, himself.

And those are the reasons why Terry McAuliffe lost today’s debate.

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