Commentary: Charlie Baker Out-Debates His Chair

Charlie Baker lost the debate last night, but the good news for the GOP candidate is that there’s another debate next week.

A final question was lighthearted: If you could select a movie star to play you in a film, who would it be? Democratic candidate Martha Coakley must have known she had won the debate by that point so she just smiled. Baker, at first flummoxed by this question, decided he’d flaunt his hipness by saying that he should be portrayed by Clint Eastwood.

Clint Eastwood? “Dirty Harry”? Has he been a popular actor with the WGBH audience? I don’t think so. Indeed, some viewers might have recalled his embarrassing debate with a chair as a prop, at the Republican National Convention that nominated Mitt Romney.

The good news for Baker was that he was much better in debate than Eastwood in his — and let’s keep in mind that Eastwood is a professional actor.

Unfortunately for Baker, Coakley was also there. She sat in a chair next to his. And she delivered a more winning performance.

Evaluating debates can be very subjective. Supporters of a candidate can have higher expectations and thus be disappointed — judging their candidate more harshly than typical voters. Maybe Baker didn’t do as poorly as I felt while watching it. In recent on-air analysis, I thought I was being objective in saying Coakley lost recent debates and had better improve if she wanted to stop her downward slide in the polls.

In this debate I saw a more confident Coakley. She spoke more clearly and shrewdly. Previously I thought she sounded tentative, convoluted and more like the insider candidate.

By contrast, Baker last night sounded defensive and whiny at times. His eyes darted back and forth between the moderators, Jim Braude and Margery Eagan — as if he were seeking their approval, rather than trying to convince the audience.

If voters only read a transcript of this debate in newspapers, Baker would have done fine. He seemed to talk more, so maybe he would have even been considered the winner. But this was a TV debate, and he did not project a winning persona.

Baker under-performed in making many arguments. When asked about economic plans, Coakley said her 13 regional plans with $500 million in new spending would mean, “We will build an economy from the ground up.” That’s very ambitious for someone who, as Braude pointed out, had never created jobs. Baker, however, played defense on the economic front by going into great detail about how his outsourcing of jobs as head of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care saved hundreds of jobs in Wellesley and Quincy, minimized damage to other employees, etc. And he contended that he should be given some credit for helping create “500,000-net new jobs” during the Weld-Cellucci administration.


Baker was at his best on whether taxes should be raised. Coakley was asked about her willingness to raise taxes as a “last resort” – a resort she seems ready to check into, to pay for increased spending. She claimed she’d raise them only on upper income folks but Braude asked how she’d only raise taxes on upper income taxpayers when there is no graduated income tax. Baker pointed out that all the available tax sources would “land on the middle class” who were “tired of being nickel-and-dimed.”

There were not many flashes of humor, but Coakley seemed the more quick-witted. When Baker was asked about having to apologize for gaffes like calling a TV reporter “sweetheart,” Baker accidentally called Martha by the moderator’s name, Margery. Again he apologized. Coakley replied, “That’s fine, just don’t call me sweetheart.”

The candidates were asked what annoyed them about criticism. Baker was indignant about the perception that he cared more about math than about people. “Math does matter,” he explained in a lengthy reply, but said he’s “all about people.” Coakley said a great misperception about her was that she was “humorless and chilly,” which she quickly rebutted in a humorless, chilly way.

On the tragic problems at the Department of Children and Families, Baker talked of “management reform” and again criticized Coakley for a state lawsuit. He praised her as a great advocate of children, so she didn’t have to say much in her defense. He tried to offset the view that a super PAC ally of his went too far in maligning her as complicit in the “savage toll of abuse,” which concluded “how could we trust her again?” But when Coakley was asked whether she felt her super PAC ally went too far in criticizing Baker as former head of Harvard Pilgrim, she blithely said: but that was factual. Maybe not wanting to spend more time about how his salary tripled back then, Baker instead gave the classic answer when a child is criticized for unfairness: She started it!

In answer to a question about how local law enforcement can ensure against what happened in racially-torn Ferguson, Missouri, Baker recalled how he recently went on a “ride-around” with a police officer and found it illuminating. He concluded, “We have to imbed ourselves as human beings.” That sounded better than it reads. Yet the Attorney General squelched him by saying “I’ve done that for 18 years.” Well, with that kind of caustic comment, don’t expect Baker to ask Coakley along on his next ride-around.

On charter schools, Baker was most passionate. “When I knock doors in Dorchester… they are desperate when they talk about this.” Then he started a sentence with a good point and lapsed into business jargon: “There are stars performing in urban schools and we are not leveraging them.” I guess that’s inspiring if you like to leverage children.

On earned sick time, Coakley made her populist argument that ordinary folks are the victims and as many as 1.2 million would be affected. Baker expressed sympathy for small businesses that couldn’t afford ever more government regulations like this, and made the less emotionally satisfying point that there’d be “unintended consequences.”

A late question was about the “pay-to-play” controversy in New Jersey, where Coakley said Baker is “under investigation” for having landed a pension fund investment deal after donating $10,000 to Gov. Chris Christie’s state GOP committee. It was reported on the day of the debate that the investigation report by Christie’s appointee would not be disclosed until right after the election. Braude asked Baker if he’d call on the Christie administration to release the findings before the election. Baker said he “can’t control” what they do, and protested, “I’ve never tried to hide anything” and “I’ve done nothing wrong.” That defensiveness was not the way Baker wanted to conclude this debate.

Unlike Dirty Harry, this debate did not make his day.

Todd Domke is a Republican political analyst for WBUR.

Headshot of Todd Domke

Todd Domke Republican Political Analyst
Todd Domke is a Republican political analyst for WBUR.



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