Analysis: There Was Enough Fodder for a Second Debate — and a Third

Ben Jealous should have accepted the second debate. His debate performance on Monday was, by far, the high-water mark of his bid to unseat Republican Gov. Larry Hogan. For one tense, riveting hour, Jealous provided a reminder of why he was the surprise (and runaway) winner of the Democratic primary in June. He came with a coherent message — that Maryland’s economy is under-performing, that crime is on the rise, that health care costs are skyrocketing and that teachers are underpaid. And he displayed a feistiness and focus that voters haven’t seen so far. Hogan didn’t appear keen to have his record dumped on in this fashion. He interrupted Jealous repeatedly, often speaking when it was not his turn and occasionally resorting to belittling retorts. Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (right) and Benjamin T. Jealous barely made eye contact as they shook hands in the Maryland Public Television studio Monday. Larry Canner Photography/Courtesy of MPT     “I don’t know where you get your facts,” he said at one point. “It doesn’t matter how many times you say it, it’s not going to be true,” he said at another juncture.  Maryland Public Television’s frequent use of split-screen captured many of the non-verbal moments adroitly.  One awkward moment came when the challenger invited viewers to go to his website for more details on a policy proposal he was discussing. “You can go to benjealous.com,” the Democrat said. “I’m not going to go to benjealous.com,” Hogan said, dismissively. (Later in the debate, when Hogan wanted to push back on an education funding claim, he repeatedly said, “It’s right on your website.”) Hogan scored plenty of points of his own. He touted his willingness, even eagerness, to work with the state legislature, which is dominated by Democrats. He offered vivid reminders of his strong response to the riots in Baltimore. He recounted some of the many times he has spoken out against President Trump.  And for every set of facts Jealous offered that showed the economy struggling, wages stagnating, health care costs rising, and more, Hogan had credible-sounding numbers that demonstrated the opposite to be true. He was also skillful in reminding the audience why he was elected in the first place — to reverse the tax increases of the O’Malley years.  But it was Jealous who seemed to have the edge for more of the hour. If you were watching with the sound off, or only half paying attention, Jealous seemed more like the incumbent, with his crisp navy suit, white shirt, sky-blue tie and Maryland lapel pin. Hogan had a blue suit, a white shirt and an oddly busy tie, but no state flag on his lapel. And for viewers keying off body language, Jealous looked more comfortable under the lights. His body movements and hand gestures were contained, smooth, and almost always worked in his favor. Hogan, whose later-in-life success in politics is a small part of his broad appeal, didn’t give off quite the same vibe.  Each man misspoke. Both made laughably false claims about the other, perhaps more so than one normally hears in an encounter at this level. Jealous seemed to imply that Hogan’s only answer to gridlock is to build hot lanes in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, an objectively false charge given Hogan’s role in spearheading the first dedicated funding source in the history of the D.C.-region’s Metro system and his decision to green-light the Purple Line. He also accused Hogan of running months of attack ads meant to “scare the electorate.” Actually, it’s the Republican Governors Association that has been running anti-Jealous commercials. Hogan said his criminal justice reform plan “has been praised by almost every single elected Democrat in Maryland.” That isn’t remotely true.    And, he said, that local school boards “are completely unaccountable,” news that will come as a surprise to Board of Education members everywhere. Both candidates got carried away at times.   Moderator Jeff Salkin, MPT’s answer to longtime PBS host Jim Lehrer, did his usual excellent job. His seat-of-the-pants decision, early on, to let the candidates barrel past agreed-to time constraints produced that rarest of debates, one in which the candidates genuinely mix it up, the way two people with opposing views, sitting at a bar, might engage in political back-and-forth. But that decision gave the encounter a vaguely out-of-control quality in which it occasionally wasn’t clear whose turn it was.   “What was the question?” Hogan asked following one vigorous exchange. A bit later, Jealous pounced when Hogan gave one tremendously long answer that the challenger thought was non-responsive. “The governor went two minutes and 45 seconds [actually it was 2:19] and never actually told us what his plan was — because he doesn’t have one,” Jealous said.  Because many of the questions produced long answers, a slew of issues went unaddressed, including the proposed $15-an-hour minimum wage, prescription drug benefits for state retirees, the health of the Chesapeake Bay, how to handle recommendations for more school funding expected to come from the Kirwan Commission, sports gambling and many more – clearly enough fodder for a second or even third debate.  Hogan indulged in some attacks that might be better left to surrogates, such as when he accused Jealous of not knowing Maryland. When Jealous objected, with a passionate telling of his family’s history in the state, Hogan backpedaled. If anyone tuned in hoping Jealous would offer reassurance that the math on his ambitious campaign pledges is sound, they left without hearing it. The debate may not change the trajectory of a campaign that’s been lopsided for months. There’s no guarantee that the Election Day numbers will even be close. But viewers of Monday’s Maryland Public Television debate saw two men with sharply different visions and styles — but equal claims at leading the state for the next four years. From that perspective, Jealous got what he needed, the chance to keep fighting, to keep the troops focused and, perhaps, generate some late campaign cash. But he may regret his decision to accept just one debate when the offer to do two was on the table. We’ll never know what the race would have looked like if these candidates had been able to square off again.   bruce@marylandmatters.org

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