Both Gov. Martin O'Malley and former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. have been avoiding direct answers to some of the toughest issues facing the state: a projected $1.1 billion budget shortfall next year, some $30 billion in pension and retiree health care liabilities, an increased federal enforcement role in Chesapeake Bay cleanup, a slots program that's mired in legal challenges and a transportation system crumbling from underfunding. Unfortunately, the first televised debate between the two didn't change that, and for that reason, it's impossible to declare either one a winner.
That is not to say they performed equally well. Governor O'Malley set the terms for the debate from the start by framing his actions over the last four years as tough decisions made in difficult times that were designed to move Maryland forward. That narrative got scant challenge from Mr. Ehrlich as he professed a desire not to "re-litigate the past" — all the while doing just that. It's a good thing that the campaigns have agreed to more debates because this one didn't truly match up Mr. Ehrlich's strongest arguments with Mr. O'Malley's.
The incumbent talked early and often about the topics he wanted to: funding for education, the college tuition freeze he instituted, the budget cuts he's made, the taxes and fees that went up under Mr. Ehrlich's administration. It was not until the very close of the debate that Mr. Ehrlich laid into the incumbent over the tax increases Mr. O'Malley pushed through the legislature, and even at that, Mr. O'Malley was able to assert, without a challenge, that income tax changes more than offset a higher sales tax for 40 percent of Marylanders. Mr. O'Malley was able to repeat that he had stood up to utilities on ratepayers' behalf without Mr. Ehrlich mentioning even once the Democrat's failed promise to roll back the 72 percent BGE rate increase.
A question about gun control serves as a clear example of how Mr. O'Malley took better advantage of the opportunity.
Mr. Ehrlich spoke at length about his longstanding support for Second Amendment rights — an issue that likely resonates more with his base voters than with swing voters. Mr. O'Malley spoke briefly about his belief that appropriate gun control measures are necessary to keep firearms out of the hands of drug dealers and then pivoted into a discussion of efforts his administration has made to reduce crime — including the reduction of a backlog of unprocessed DNA samples inherited from Mr. Ehrlich's administration. (Neither one of them, incidentally, directly addressed the issue that stirs the most passion around Maryland's gun debate — whether the state should loosen gun control laws that make it more difficult for law-abiding citizens to get concealed carry permits than it is in other states.)
Mr. Ehrlich then launched into a criticism of the zero-tolerance policing policy Mr. O'Malley favored while Baltimore mayor, saying Mr. O'Malley threw thousands of African-Americans into jail for no particular reason only to have them released again. Not only is that an issue that failed to gain any traction for Mr. Ehrlich when he raised it four years ago but it's one that's not particularly relevant to voters in the rest of the state who are now judging Mr. O'Malley's performance as governor. Similarly, Mr. Ehrlich spent much of the debate talking about the state's effort to take over 11 failing Baltimore schools in 2006 — an issue that most voters have probably forgotten about and one that's increasingly irrelevant, considering the wholesale reforms that have taken place in the city school district since then.
The clearest contrast between the two on a future-focused question was in the opening moments of the debate when the candidates were asked about job creation. Mr. Ehrlich blamed Mr. O'Malley for fostering an environment that was hostile to business through the actions of regulators at the Departments of the Environment and Labor, Licensing and Regulation. Mr. O'Malley framed job creation as a workforce development issue, saying Maryland has the potential to be a strong international competitor in health care, biotechnology and other advanced fields and pointed to his spending decisions on K-12 and higher education.
But again, Mr. Ehrlich missed a chance to connect on the issue by naming specific examples of how regulators have made it tough for businesses. In interviews, he has pointed to an unemployment system that is heavily biased in favor of protecting workers, even bad ones, and to environmental regulators who give confusing, conflicting guidance. He's said he's had conversations with CEOs who tell him their decision on whether to come to Maryland depends entirely on whether he is elected governor. But he didn't mention any of that.
He similarly flubbed by repeatedly saying "surplus" when he meant "stimulus." Such a gaffe would be without consequence if not for the fact that a "surplus" is a good thing, whereas the federal stimulus is unpopular with many voters. Mr. Ehrlich was only saved in this by Mr. O'Malley's ego — the Democrat felt the need to correct his predecessor and point out that he really mean the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act. He should have just let that one go.
Indeed, Mr. O'Malley's performance was not uniformly great. He provided a particularly weak answer to a question about immigration — one of the hottest political topics of the day — saying, essentially, that it's the federal government's problem, and then dredging up the ancient memory of Mr. Ehrlich calling multiculturalism "bunk" and "crap." Mr. O'Malley also overreached at points, such as when he suggested that Mr. Ehrlich's plan to cut some education funding would put "tens of thousands" of teachers out of jobs.
The debate format — a loose conversation in which moderator Denise Koch introduced topics and the two candidates were able to engage in some back and forth — was the one Mr. Ehrlich likes. It's similar to the talk radio format he's accustomed to, both from his weekly radio show and from years of appearances on the air as governor, congressman and state delegate. But this debate showed that a free-flowing conversation with talk radio callers and one with a thoroughly-prepped sitting governor of the state are very different things.
Mr. O'Malley came in prepared — his campaign passed out fact sheets to reporters in advance, anticipating dozens of issues that might come up — and he hit all the points he wanted to. Mr. Ehrlich got caught on some tangents and wasn't consistently focused on pitching his message to swing voters. There's a better case to be made for his candidacy, and he needs to recalibrate his approach to make sure he provides it in their next debate.