By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Coakley’s “other Kennedy” calculation

It’s hardly unusual when a prohibitive frontrunner says that independent candidates should be included in debates. The tactic can be an effective way of marginalizing the principal challenger.

In Martha Coakley’s case, though, I wonder if something else might be in play. It’s possible that she wants to be sure voters won’t walk into the booth on Jan. 19, be confronted with the name Joe Kennedy for the first time — and come to the wrong conclusion.

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  1. Amusedbutinformedobserver

    I’m still ouching over the suggestion that poll numbers play a role in whether candidates are invited to debate. Fundamentally, in our system, if you can get on the ballot, you are a candidate, and as a candidate you are a serious candidate, at least until election day.

    I am uncomfortable with the notion of the media deciding that certain of the people on the ballot are qualified to have their views heard and others are not, and more uncomfortable with the notion that pseudo-organizations may decide who may be heard and who may not be heard.

    Much of the debate-limiting talk comes from the media, which doesn’t want to deal with anything out of the mainstream. The non-traditional-party candidates this time around may be absurd, but who is the media to direct voters away from the abusurd?

    • Dan Kennedy

      “Fundamentally, in our system, if you can get on the ballot, … you are a serious candidate, at least until election day.”

      @Amusedbutinformedobserver: I find that to be a truly interesting statement, because I’m sure you think of it as one of objective fact. I actually consider it your opinion, open to dispute.

      It’s pretty easy to say let’s have all three Senate candidates debate rather than two. So let me raise the same question with you that I raised with @Tony Schinella. Would you have liked to see six presidential candidates debate last year instead of two. Do you think democracy would have been served by the public hearing far less from Obama and McCain in order to make way for Bob Barr et al.?

  2. Mike Stucka

    I’d like to see Pat Paulsen get invited to a debate. The only reason he isn’t up there on the podium with everyone is a behind-the-times form of physical discrimination and bigotry.

    If he can’t be made available, then I’d again push for his heirs in the Barking Spider Resurgence Party.

  3. O-FISH-L

    Coakley’s “desire” to include Kennedy in the debates, while potentially advantageous, is not without risk.

    Already, Matt Viser’s Globe piece today at least alludes to Coakley’s stance as self-serving, if not disingenuous. Viser writes, “Having a three-way debate would help Coakley, the front-runner in the race, and would make it harder for Brown to clearly differentiate himself from [her].” Viser also noted that Coakley took a far different tone three years ago, refusing to debate her Republican opponent in the 2006 AG race.

    If Coakley can be painted as someone who has been willing to say and do anything (or do nothing, as in prosecuting Democrat corruption) to serve herself, Brown may be on to a winning theme. Another risk for Coakley is that in debate, Kennedy aggressively attacks her on her ultra-liberal, big government positions, leaving Brown to appear as the best alternative to both. Lest we forget that little more than a decade ago, Coakley couldn’t win a lowly state rep race in Dorchester. Charisma is not her middle name.

    All of that and a good January blizzard on Election Day and all bets are off. Galvin wouldn’t dare postpone the election due to snow, would he? Especially after refusing to cancel as 3000 Americans were dying a few hundred miles away on 9/11?

  4. Bob Gardner

    @ Dan, “Would you have liked to see six presidential candidates debate last year instead of two.”?

    On balance, yes I would. It might have been useful, for example, to have Nader pointing out that both Obama, and McCain were promising to keep a war going. Or Barr, or anyone challenging McCain and Obama on the bailout.

    It’s always a tradeoff, and there is no perfect number of candidates, and six canditates is a grey area. Ten is obviously too many, and three is equally obviously not too many.

    @ O-FISH-L As I recall 9/11, Galvin tried to cancel the election that day and even went on the radio to announce it was cancelled, but was quickly overruled and told that he was acting without authority. I’ll check the Globe archives and get back to you.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Bob Gardner: You could accomplish the same goals with a competent moderator, though I suppose that might be too much to wish for.

  5. lkcape

    Shame on you Dan for suggesting that a candidate who has his 10,000 signatures is not a serious candidate. The body politic makes that decision, not you, not the media, not the other candidate.

    The media can do what hit wishes, a free press is a free press.

    But do not shirk from the criticism of bias and favor when it comes flying…being a trusted “journalist” earned, not granted by decree of a/the Grand University.

    The marketplace of ideas is the best place for them to be vetted.

    And if the journalist’s opinion and selection are on the wrong side of the vetting… well, tough toenails.

    Competent moderator? Chuckle, chuckle… Better than others, yea. Competent? Not in the current crop.

  6. Bob Gardner

    @ Dan, I try to limit my wishes to things that have a better chance of happening, like the Sox picking up Hanley Ramirez on waivers.

    @ O-FISH-L. The Globe archives tell it this way. Galvin was preparing to go to the SJC to cancel that day’s election, when he was talked out of it by Jane Swift and Tom Reilly.
    So, to put it in O-FISH-L-ese: Galvin, since he hated America, and wanted to savor every detail of the deaths of 3000 Americans, tried to cancel the election.
    But patriotic Jane Swift refused to stop the election, because she thought we should still vote even though 3000 Americans were dying a few miles away. She was aided by Tom Reilly, who unpatriotically and callously, wanted to continue the election even though 3000 Americans were dying a few hundred miles away.
    I’ve had to change things to match the historical record, but I think I’ve preserved your intention of gratuitously smearing Democrats.

  7. O-FISH-L

    @Bob Gardner: Thanks for the roundabout way of stating that I’m correct; Galvin refused to cancel or seek a SJC postponement of the election on 9/11. The background of who may have talked him down is nice, if superfluous.

    The prior question remains. What does Galvin do if a severe snow storm, still common here in January despite “manmade global warming,” strikes on Election Day and threatens to affect the outcome? The media needs to ask that question now, not on the day of the storm.

    Perhaps, again at the last minute, we’ll learn that Teddy wrote a second letter, this time requesting that a special election to fill “his” seat be held only on a sunny day. That would keep his driver, the beneficiary of his first letter, in the Senate a little longer and allow Coakley a better chance.

    Do you really think that Coakley and all of the special interests dependent on her 60th vote, won’t pull out all the stops, including postponement, to elect her?

  8. mike_b1

    Let me get this straight.

    On the one hand, post after post notes how television watchers and print readers are diminishing. And yet there there is debate over whether those same media that “no one watches/reads anymore” are handing the election to the major party nominees? See the incongruity?

    And that’s not all. Because a guy gets 10,000 signatures in a state of millions of voters, that makes him a legitimate contender? Really? Interesting math.

    Finally, if the Internet is where everyone gets their information today, then shouldn’t a serious candidate spend most of their efforts there, vs. running ads on tv and radio, giving interviews to papers, knocking on doors and — my personal favorite — robocalls? In which case, who cares who gets invited to the debate(s)?

    Incongruities abound.

  9. lkcape

    Mr. B1…Nobody has accused politicians of being smart!

  10. Mike Stucka

    A classic piece of journalism on what makes a candidate is this New York Times piece.

    A debate with 226 people’d get awfully interesting, or not, in a hurry.

  11. Ben

    You’re right-on Dan, politicians don’t get elected by assuming that the average vote is informed.

    I do think it’s an open question as to who Kennedy would draw more votes from.
    If you take a look at his website, Kennedy comes across more as a verbose junior board member than a Glenn Beck. He’s not going to necessarily be seen as flanking Brown’s right.

  12. Brad Deltan

    Does anyone really think that debates MATTER in swaying people’s decision on who to vote for?

    I mean, okay, sure…if a candidate really screws up and does/says something embarrassing, then yeah. That might change someone’s mind enough to stay home on election day. But that’s probably about the extent of it. Elections are a beauty contest and nothing more, and have been since the 1960’s. Actually, since 2000 we’ve learned they’re not even that; they’re merely a distraction for the public. Opium for the masses while the real decision is made months in advance and nothing is spared to make sure the “election” mirrors reality come November 2nd.

    Even shucking the paranoia for a minute, you can’t deny that – much like Supreme Court nomination hearings – the candidates will say and do whatever is necessary to be elected. And what they say/do on the campaign trail has precious little correlation with what they’ll say/do in office.

    With that in mind, I say why not let them all up there and have at it? If nothing else, it does increase the odds that one of the fringe folks will force the frontrunners into actually defending some crock of sh*t that they’re spouting. And who knows, maybe it’ll be forced hard enough to actually reveal a smidgen of truth? One can hope…

  13. Aaron Read

    And that’s not all. Because a guy gets 10,000 signatures in a state of millions of voters, that makes him a legitimate contender? Really? Interesting math.

    @mike_b1: that’s no more or less interesting math than believing that two senators can represent the wishes of just under 6.5 million Massachusetts residents.

    Or that ten representatives can.

    Or even that 160 state reps could (that’s over 40,000 constituents per rep).

    The entire system of representative democracy that the US has is based on suspension of disbelief over some patently ridiculous concepts and rampant hypocrisy. Yet, somehow, it mostly works. Go figure.

  14. Bob Gardner

    @ O-FISH-L,
    Nope, you’re wrong. Galvin tried to stop the election until Swift and Reilly came out against his effort, which he then dropped.
    I suppose you could say that he “refused” to continue what was certainly a doomed effort. But does that make any sense?
    Elections have been cancelled for snow at least once before, in April 1997. Who knows, if it snows on election day in January, whether Galvin will cancel the election.
    If that happens I’m sure that people will complain, that politics influenced his decision, which depending on the circumstances may or may not be true.
    But to imply some kind disrespect for the victims of 9/11, on Galvin’s part, because of the decision to continue elections that day, when you didn’t even bother to check to see what role he played in that decision, is just unbelievably offensive and slimy.
    And if that’s too roundabout for you, O-FISH-L, let me just say, you’re a real slimeball.

  15. O-FISH-L

    Writing from neutrality for a moment, I think Coakley got bad advice on this one. It was foolhardy for her to be the public face in the media in favor of Kennedy in the debates. Unless you read this blog or follow politics extremely closely, nobody knows Kennedy is even running. Thus, Coakley’s sudden concern for him and her supposed passion for democracy rings hollow, almost fraudulent. Also, by challenging Sen. Brown to agree to Kennedy’s presence, or anything else, Coakley instantly elevates Brown to her level. Bad mistake for any clear favorite.

    Coakley would have been smart to have Menino’s people arrange the debates. Two or three debates, for short durations at obscure times on hard to find mediums. Privately, her people could have insisted on Kennedy being there, forcing Brown to either agree or publicly appear the bully by trying to block him.
    @Brad Deltan: Debates CAN change the outcome of the race and nobody knows better than MA Dems. Dukakis’ “No” when asked if he’d favor the death penalty if his wife was ever raped and killed. Shannon O’Brien’s, “would you like to see my tattoo?” to a stunned Tim Russert. Even, John Silber’s meltdown with Natalie Jacobsen, while not in a debate, shows how unscripted televised moments can lead to disaster.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Fish: You may be right that Coakley shouldn’t be the public face. But I do think there’s a risk in her letting her supporters walk into the voting booth and encounter the name “Joe Kennedy” for the first time. She’s got to get the word out that it’s not that Joe Kennedy.

      What won the race for Mitt Romney was the “Gang of Three” ad, not Shannon O’Brien’s reference to her supposed tattoo. Romney was an alien graft on the Massachusetts body politic, very different from Republicans like Bill Weld and Paul Cellucci. But when Romney reminded voters that O’Brien would be allies of Tom Finneran and Tom Birmingham, that was all she wrote.

  16. mike_b1

    no more or less interesting math than believing that two senators can represent the wishes of just under 6.5 million Massachusetts residents.
    Aaron, that’s not exactly what the senators are there to do. That is the job of the US representatives, however, which is why those numbers change periodically based on the population distribution.

    In any case, it’s apples and oranges. Getting 10,000 signatures doesn’t even mean one could get 10,000 votes. For instance, I would sign a petition to put Kennedy on the ballot. I’d never consider voting for him.

  17. Newshound

    In many cases the weaker candidate may actually be the better candidate.

    But in the debates and other public forums such as newspapers the focus has to be limited to those who can contribute. Candidates, unfortunately, with no chance of winning need to be weeded out of the forum to some degree, otherwise they will be a distraction to the process. However, there are candidates, too, with no chance of winning but can make worthwhile contributions to the forum. Ron Paul might be an example.

    This is such a difficult area to answer, as most of us are politically subjective and which candidates get the coverage and which ones don’t is hard to answer in advance without first attempting to view the landscape in the somewhat impossible range of being publicly accepted as objective.

    Moderators, editors and reporters have to explore and judge with some devotion to the rules of objectivity as to what this Joe Kennedy brings to the forum. Does he have worthwhile commentary to contribute, can he spur the debate to make it more lively, does he have ideas worthy of discussion and exploration, or is he just there in the contest and hardly serves a purpose or worse, is a distraction if allowed to be?

  18. yaya

    Of course martha wants everyone to know Joe Kennedy is not THE Joe Kennedy plus having him there in a three way debate gives her the cover she likes.

    Is Martha a LIBERAL LION in civil rights… or is she a centrist who favors law enforcement authority over civil rights?

  19. Amusedbutinformedobserver

    I understand the inelegance of including fringe candidates in debates. However, to not include them is a self-fulfilling prophecy that their candidacies are not valid and are not viable. I would caution against the contention that allowing the fringe candidates into a debate somehow means that democracy is not served.

    Debates need to be more than rote questions and answers for which reporters/panel members and candidates alike are prepped. Let’s face it, the people who sit and ask questions in a panel-style debate are interested in polishing their own reputations as much as they are interested in asking probing questions. and let’s face it, candidates in a debate generally manage to shift gears during a response and turn the questions they are asked into the question they prefer to answer.

    How the traditional part candidates react to questions and issues raised by those out of the mainstream would actually be more telling than prepared questions and answers, both of wh ich are carefully tailored to the point of rehearsal.

    A wild card into the world of boring political debates would be welcomed, and by getting on the ballot, the fringe candidates have bought into the pot.

  20. Brad Deltan

    @Brad Deltan: Debates CAN change the outcome of the race and nobody knows better than MA Dems.

    @O-FISH-L: You just agreed with me. I said that the *substance* of debates doesn’t change anyone’s minds about who to vote for. Only the “Stupid Gaffes” seem to do that, and you then cited three of the more well-known ones. (although I agree with Dan that the tattoo reference probably mattered less than the Gang of Three ad)

    While it pains me to realize how far we have sunk into the “popularity contest” that our elections have become, I agree that we should have debates because unscripted moments can be very revealing (and destructive) and by that same logic, I think we should have as many candidates as possible in the debates because it increases the odds that we’ll have more unscripted moments.

  21. O-FISH-L

    @Brad Deltan: I agree with everything on your 1:55 pm post. I only quibble with the likelihood of a nobody candidate tripping up a front-runner.

    There are two legitimate candidates in the Senate race. Let them at each other, without presence of a court jester(s).

    In colonial times in the town square, with no electronic media, a full stage of bickering candidates might have held value to an undecided electorate. Nowadays, we have only time for an hour and room for two. The likes of “the other Joe Kennedy” missed their calling by about 230 some odd years. Send OUT the clowns.

  22. fresco

    This election is Martha Coakley’s to lose. Having three candidates actually takes the pressure off of her in a debate. She can stay in the background as she did in other debates. I would guess the “Joe Kennedy” name has nothing to do with her decision.

  23. Peter Porcupine

    DK – FWIW, I think Coakley made a miscaclulation. I don’t think that people who don’t know that Joseph Kennedy isn’t THAT Joseph Kennedy will be watching the debates. Likewise, Candidate Kennedy is substantially further to the righn that Brown. So putting him on the stage with liberal Coakley makes Brown personify the moderate/sensible center which the state’s majority party – The Unenrolled – are likely to vote for.

    That is the practical calculation. As far as the ethical one – how DARE journalists tell the public who is ‘viable’? They get to manage and spin the day to day coverage of politics now; to also want to manage which ideas and candidates are are given coverage is censorship.

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