The last time someone tried to debate an empty chair (Clint Eastwood, Republican National Convention, 2012), the chair won. But when two of the leading Democratic candidates for governor did it last night (this time, it was an empty podium, actually), the chair was the big loser, but not for the reasons one might have expected.
Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler and Del. Heather Mizeur met at WBFF Fox 45 for an hour-long debate, but the presumptive front-runner, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, skipped the event with a lame explanation about this encounter exceeding the three debates the campaigns had agreed on. The TV station decided to leave a podium with Mr. Brown's name on it conspicuously in between the two candidates, and one might have expected Mr. Gansler, who has been aggressive in questioning Mr. Brown's qualifications for office, to tee off on his absent rival.
But for the most part, he didn't. Delegate Mizeur stuck to her commitment to run a positive, issue-oriented campaign, and Mr. Gansler largely followed suit. Fox 45 anchor Jennifer Gilbert, who moderated the event, made a point of calling out Mr. Brown's absence at the beginning of the debate, and she made another reference to him during a question about the state's botched health care exchange, but the station didn't obsess about his absence either. Wide shots in which the empty podium was visible were relatively rare. And if the Brown campaign assumed that the local Fox affiliate would conduct a debate in some way that was biased against him, that fear proved unfounded (and even if the station had a conservative agenda, why it would be harsher toward him than the far more liberal Delegate Mizeur, who could say). Ms. Gilbert asked a number of tough questions, but they were perfectly fair, dealing with taxes, education, the environment, criminal justice and so on.
The reason Mr. Brown lost this encounter was not that his absence was apparent but rather that it wasn't. Mr. Gansler and Ms. Mizeur gave good, substantive and contrasting answers to a wide variety of questions about issues facing the state, and there was rarely a sense that something (or someone) was missing. By deciding not to show up, Mr. Brown made himself seem less central to this election.
As for the two who were there, Ms. Mizeur won the night. Her answers were unfailingly clear and concise, and they reflected a consistent governing philosophy. Mr. Gansler also performed well, but his answers tended to meander a bit, and at various points, he appeared less in command of the facts than Ms. Mizeur. A good example was in Mr. Gansler's insistence that Maryland should have adopted the federal government's health exchange website, which he said would be free, rather than switching to Connecticut's, which will cost the state $40 million to $50 million. But it took Ms. Mizeur to point out that doing so would leave the state with no way to enroll people in Medicaid.
Though she was impressively polished, Ms. Mizeur came across as substantially to the left of the Maryland Democratic Party establishment on essentially every issue. That has excited the liberal wing of the party's base, but whether it is enough to carry the primary (not to speak of whether such a governor would be good for the state) remains to be seen.
As for Mr. Brown, he probably isn't sweating his decision to skip the debate. On the same day, he posted a campaign finance report showing that he has raised $1.2 million in the last six weeks, far more than his rivals. Mr. Brown probably had little to gain from a debate and the potential to lose standing if he made a major gaffe. In skipping, he endures no worse than the tut-tutting of the editorial writers of the world. It's a tactically smart, if cynical decision for the campaign. We just hope that it's not the way he (or anyone else) would govern.
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