Brown’s reasons for rejecting debate make no sense

Tom Brokaw

This commentary is also online at the Huffington Post.

What we were talking about, in case U.S. Sen. Scott Brown’s diversionary tactics led you astray, was a televised debate, held before a neutral audience, to be moderated by Tom Brokaw. Everything else is baloney.

As you no doubt already know, Brown made two demands that had to be met before he would agree to a debate with his Democratic rival, Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Warren.

The first was that Vicki Kennedy, president of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute, which would sponsor the debate, refrain from endorsing a candidate for “the duration of the Senate race.”

The second was that the debate be carried only by local media outlets and not by “out-of-state cable networks with a reputation for political advocacy” — clear reference to the liberal outlet MSNBC, which had been mentioned as a possibility.

Both demands were ridiculous because they were irrelevant. But when Vicki Kennedy rejected the first of those demands, that was enough for Brown to say no.

(At this point I suppose I should include a non-disclosure: I’m not related to those Kennedys.)

Brown might have been able to make a reasonable case for asking Vicki Kennedy not to endorse until after the debate. But demanding that she refrain for “the duration” was just silly. If the media consortium that includes the Boston Globe schedules a debate, will Brown insist that the Globe not endorse? And what will Brown say if the Boston Herald, as is its wont, puts together its own debate? Surely he won’t ask the paper to withhold its all-but-certain Brown endorsement.

As for MSNBC, the debate organizers could prevent the channel from carrying it live. Afterwards, though, Rachel Maddow, Ed Schultz and company would be free to show clips and comment on them whether they had carried the full debate or not. The fair-use provision of the copyright law guarantees that — not to mention the First Amendment.

And why did I say the debate would be held before a neutral audience? Because you can be sure the Brown and Warren campaigns would insist on equal numbers of partisans in the audience. So the Kennedy Institute’s sponsorship isn’t an issue, either.

I know some observers have questioned Brokaw’s alleged liberal bias. But since that hasn’t been raised by the Brown campaign, we have to assume he had no problem with Brokaw as moderator. When Brokaw moderated a debate between Barack Obama and John McCain in 2008, he seemed mainly interested in making sure neither candidate exceeded his allotted time. Liberal or not, Brokaw has earned his status as a fair-minded journalist who can be trusted not to throw the debate to either candidate.

It’s also hard to figure why Brown suddenly has a problem with Vicki Kennedy or the Kennedy Institute, given that he took part in a debate with Martha Coakley two years ago that was co-sponsored by the institute without setting any preconditions. As Herald columnist Peter Gelzinis points out, it was only a year ago that Brown couldn’t say enough good things about the late Ted Kennedy’s widow.

Globe columnist Scot Lehigh thinks Brown’s demands were “reasonable,” and he gives the senator credit for sticking to them. Yet Lehigh doesn’t tell us what Brown could possibly gain by failing to take part.

As my Northeastern colleague Alan Schroeder, an expert on political debates, puts it, “They’re making such an ­effort to portray Brown as someone with bipartisan credentials who can work with Democrats, and yet here’s this relatively mild example of cooperating with a Democrat, and they’re balking at it.”

Boston Phoenix political columnist David Bernstein wonders if Brown is trying to curry favor with the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, which has had its own issues with Vicki Kennedy.

Who knows what Brown and his advisers are thinking? Their political astuteness is generally beyond question. Maybe this will prove to be a smart move. Right now, though, it looks like a rare misstep, especially curious given that Brown initially made the Warren campaign look flat-footed with his rapid acceptance of several debate invitations.

My own bias is in favor of as many debates as possible, regardless of the venue. For instance, I don’t understand why Warren won’t say yes to WBZ Radio (AM 1030) talk-show host Dan Rea, who is conservative but is as fair as they come.

The candidates really don’t have anything better to do. How would we prefer they spend their time? Making television ads? Attending fundraisers? Of course not. They should spend as much time as possible side by side, talking about the issues. It’s not always the most edifying experience, but it’s better than any conceivable alternatives.

Photo (cc) by Michael Kwan and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

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33 thoughts on “Brown’s reasons for rejecting debate make no sense

  1. Brad Deltan

    Shame we won’t see the Herald relentlessly flog Brown as a “whiny douchebag” for this nonsensical rejection to a debate.

    Actually, I just wanted the phrase “whiny douchebag” attached to Brown in any context with this story. Because Lord knows, he looks like one.

  2. BP Myers

    Think the implication that anyone at all cares what Vicki Kennedy thinks reveals this is simply a ploy, to either dodge the debates entirely, or to put them on the most favorable terms to him as possible.

  3. Lou Gawab

    **Everything else is baloney.**

    Dan you can’t step away from being a partisan, can you?

    DO you even make an attempt to understand the othe side…or do you dismiss them out of hand.

    You would’ve probably gone far as a commentator if you weren’t blatently partisan. You can’t seem to understand an issue beyond “Repubs are Bad”…and Dems are good.

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @Lou: Explain to us what Brown had to fear from a televised debate in front of an audience handpicked by both candidates and moderated by someone Brown apparently had no problem with.

  4. Lou Gawab

    **Think the implication that anyone at all cares what Vicki Kennedy thinks reveals this is simply a ploy**

    You don’t think MSNBC (neutral) holding a debate at the “Kennedy Institute isn’t a “ploy”?

    Jeesh.

  5. BP Myers

    @Lou Gawab says: “You don’t think MSNBC (neutral) holding a debate at the “Kennedy Institute isn’t a “ploy”?”

    Well, the “Kennedy Institute” might make sense, as it was (like it or not) the seat Ted Kennedy held for forty years or so. Adds some drama. Folks like drama.

    But maybe they could have had it at the Kennedy School of Government. Or the Kennedy Library. Or in the lobby of the John F. Kennedy building. Or outside, on the Rose Kennedy Greenway. (Do you forget what state you live in?)

    And as long as the moderator is fair — and Tom Brokaw is — what difference does it make what cable channel it’s on?

  6. Stephen Stein

    I hear Brown has agreed to the Boston Globe sponsored debate – has he made the demand that the Boston Globe not endorse anyone?

    He’s completely hypocritical. He doesn’t want to agree to any more debates than he has to. I understand that. But the “demand” that a private citizen remain neutral – that’s completely undemocratic and unprecedented.

  7. Paul Rickter

    Nothing is accidental. The MSNBC part is all about scaring up some more fundraising dollars and voter enthusiasm from the Rachel Maddow-hating right. This is the same reason why, way before Warren got into the race, Brown fundraised on the idea that Maddow could be running against him in 2012. MSNBC plays the same role in the right wing universe that Fox plays in the left.

    And Bernstein’s probably right about the Vicki Kennedy thing being all about playing footsie with the RC hierarchy. Just like voting for the Blunt Amendment — he’s hoping that MA women forget about that vote and the bishops & cardinals don’t.

  8. L.K. Collins

    Dan Kennedy? Partisan?

    Say it isn’t so!!!!

    He’s the model of patient explication of all of the alternatives, and deigns not to impress his views upon others!

  9. Lou Gawab

    **@Lou: Explain to us what Brown had to fear from a televised debate in front of an audience handpicked by both candidates and moderated by someone Brown apparently had no problem with.**

    Nothing to “fear’…just stepping forward and asking for neutral ground.

    Why should he do ANYTHING for MSNBC?

    Why should he do ANYTHING for the so-called Kennedy Institute?

    Why should he do anything to legitimize either one?

    As a previous poster said, nothing is accidental, everything is a ploy. It’s like a chess match, to see who can reclaim the upper hand.

    Even MSNBC and Brokaw aren’t doing this out the kindness of their heart and their love of political discourse. (Sorry Pollyanna) Everyone has an agenda.

    **moderated by someone Brown apparently had no problem with.**

    Has he said he has “no problem” with the choice?

    Let’s face it, this should be a local event.

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @Stephen, as I’ve said before, Keller is the gold standard — tough, fair and nonpartisan. He’s also a friend of mine.

      @Lou, why don’t we take Brown at his word? He got his way on MSNBC. The only reason he has stated for rejecting the invitation is that Vicki Kennedy refused to go along with his demand that she not endorse a candidate for “the duration” of the campaign. If he had asked that she not endorse until after the debate, that would have been reasonable, and she might have even agreed.

  10. Lou Gawab

    **The only reason he has stated for rejecting the invitation is that Vicki Kennedy refused to go along with his demand that she not endorse a candidate for “the duration” of the campaign.**

    Smart move, no?

    **If he had asked that she not endorse until after the debate, that would have been reasonable, **

    Why would that be reasonable? Is there any doubt who she will endorse? (She endorsed Marsha Coakley, his previous opponent.)

    Yesterday the story was on Brown…will he or won’t he debate at the Kennedy Inst?

    Today, he turned the story around, and put an emphasis that Vicki will invite him, and inevitably endorse the democrat. He is using this to point that out.

    Not only that, PMSNBC will do anything they can to crucify him in any way possible. Why play along?

    Check? What’s your next move? What? Checkmate!?

    I think it was a smart move, that’s why it ticked you off so much.

  11. Lou Gawab

    **I hear Brown has agreed to the Boston Globe sponsored debate – has he made the demand that the Boston Globe not endorse anyone?**

    The Boston Globe is a legitimate news organization and institution. The Kennedy Institute, nor is Vicki Kennedy come under that category.

    Why knowledge or legitimize them in any way?

  12. Rick Peterson

    There are those who will vote for Brown purely on the basis of his uttering a word heretofore unknown to the Kennedy Family: “no”.

  13. Stephen Stein

    @Lou – the MSNBC thing is a complete red herring. It was never going to happen. Brown has made this a campaign staple now – remember “Rachel Maddow for Senate”?

    He’s gotta keep on coming up with stuff to distract the rubes.

  14. L.K. Collins

    Steve, I was commenting on, and will continue to comment on Dan’s studied indignation over issues where he wants be seen as scoring political points, and is oblivious to comparable issues in other situations.

    His indignation is as phony as some of his arguments.

    Vicki Kennedy has accomplished something that has eluded most Democrats since Obama became President…transparency.

    Her move was patently political and designed to enhance the reputation of her candidate and one of the most self-centered political families ever. You know that, I know that, even Dan knows that.

    If Dan wishes to stick his nose into the fight, he can’t complain if his nose gets hit…and neither can you.

    It’s clear, Steve, from your remarks, that you do not wish the debate in political blogs to be a two-way street.

  15. Stephen Stein

    “you do not wish the debate in political blogs to be a two-way street.”

    That’s a pretty silly statement. Where did you get that idea? You were the one complaining about Dan’s politicking (on his own blog!) – I was just taking note of that fact.

  16. L.K. Collins

    You remarked that I had no understanding of political blogs.

    Quite the contrary, and I think you’ve established the points I made.

    Thanks for your assistance.

  17. C.E. Stead

    @Steve Stein – point of information. It was Ms. Kennedy who said the MSNBC would carry the event, so to now say is was ‘never going to happen’ is Monday Morning Quarterbacking. Brown was responding to the invitation as presented. (MSNBC said they had never been asked..I wonder, had she asked Tom Brokaw either?).

    Kennedy endorsed Coakley two days before the last debate, and made a commercial immidiately thereafter. If she wants to host, she needs to be neutral. Emly Rooney said that she was unable to locate an independent board that would make arrangements so it was a personal, rather than institutional, invitation since Ms. Kennedy apparently IS the institute (I had thought Peter Meade was in charge?). Newpapers and media have editorial boards that endorse, distinct from the reporters and news divisions themselves, so the comparision with the consortium is inexact.

    What is WRONG with having local stations do the coverage? Ch. 7 and Ch. 25 come to mind as co-hosts (I get that Ch. 4 already has a debate, and Ch. 5 used to employ Mrs. Brown, so that might be viewed as biased). Hey, maybe Kim Khazai would make a good questioner!

    If asked, I would advise the Senator to accept if Warren accepts Dan Rea simultaneoulsy.

  18. Lou Gawab

    **@Lou – the MSNBC thing is a complete red herring. **

    It might be from your perspective…but for others, it’s real.

    Read C.E. Stead’s comments above.

    **He’s gotta keep on coming up with stuff to distract the rubes.**

    You don’t think the Vicki and the Kennedy Institute are such a distraction?

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      Just so we’re all clear: Brown rejects the Kennedy Institute debate because Vicki Kennedy won’t agree not to endorse, and because there was some talk that it might be carried on MSNBC. Perfectly understandable!

      Warren accepts a debate invite from the Boston Herald, which has been kicking the hell out of her every day, and which is virtually certain to endorse Brown this fall. The live feed “will be offered for live broadcast to all local, cable and network stations, as well as radio and the Web.” In other words, Fox News could carry it live. No big deal!

  19. Lou Gawab

    …and he doesn’t want to make the same mistake twice:

    http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2012/06/21/sen_brown_offers_reason_for_kennedy_debate_snub/

    **Warren accepts a debate invite from the Boston Herald, which has been kicking the hell out of her every day, and which is virtually certain to endorse Brown this fall. **

    The Globe and Herald are legitimate news organizations in Boston. The “Kennedy Institute” is merely an ego driven institution.

    Personally I commend him for not going “hat in hand” before any of the Kennedy’s…or their straw organizations.

    It’s the people’s seat! (Not the Kennedy’s)

  20. Aaron Read

    “The Globe and Herald are legitimate news organizations in Boston. The “Kennedy Institute” is merely an ego driven institution.”

    Maybe so, but MSNBC is not. And if Brokaw is moderating, I’d say NBC (and therefore by extension, MSNBC) should have first dibs on airing it. Seriously, why does it matter so much where the debate is held or what medium its broadcast on? Neither has much, if any, impact on what matters: the questions being asked, the answers being given, and how the moderator controls the proceedings.

  21. C. E. Stead

    Aaron – and here I thought that MSNBC was a ‘red herring..’. Does MSNBC control and edit the tape of the debate? We already know that the Herald debate will be open to all.

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @C.E.: The issue was whether MSNBC would carry the debate live. After it’s over, anyone can run clips. Even if the sponsors say they can’t.

  22. L.K. Collins

    Given NBC’s track record of editing clips over the past few months, why would anyone consider letting them in on taping?

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @Lou: So now we know that you’ve been going off for days without bothering to read what I wrote — because I noted my disagreement with Lehigh right from the beginning. Hilarious.

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