Ned Lamont and Bob Stefanowski met for their first debate on Wednesday night, and both men dug in like blue crabs in wet sand. But how much does it really matter?
We could at one point pretend that debates were important from an intellectual standpoint. They could help voters who were on the fence decide which they wanted to support, right? Debates were a rare chance for candidates to go toe-to-toe and answer the same questions, allowing voters to compare and contrast. That’s the theory, anyway. In practice, debates haven’t been about that in a long time.
Ever since Nixon mopped up his own flop sweat on TV in 1960, high-profile debates have been about which candidate could either screw up so badly that they were absolutely doomed, or which candidate could own the other one in the most spectacular and satisfying way. Debates are like pro wrestling with less body oil. Heck, candidates even get to have entrance music — Ned Lamont strode up to the Garde Arts Center in New London to the sound of his own bagpipe band.
Debates are crucibles. They magnify everything, letting us see not just what candidates think about issues, but who they are and how they’d govern. George W. Bush came off as a laid-back trust fund kid with no real knowledge of anything in his debates with Al Gore, for example, and Barack Obama always seemed like the lecturing professor who had moments of sheer rhetorical brilliance in his debates with John McCain and Mitt Romney. Donald Trump proved at his debates that he had no business being president and, lo and behold, he still doesn’t. Who he was at the debates is who he has continued to be.
So with that said, here’s some takeaways from Wednesday’s debate.
First, Bob Stefanowski’s attempt to paint Ned Lamont as just another politician and an insider is incredibly effective, even though it shouldn’t be. Lamont is almost as much of a political outsider as Stefanowski: the sum total of his experience in government is service a few on town boards and chairing a state investment committee.
Of course, Stefanowski is such an outsider that he hasn’t even bothered to vote in a decade. What’s cooler than cool? Ice cold!
Lamont comes across as eager, energetic in a rabbity sort of way, likeable, and almost a bit naive. He does have some of the cadences and mannerisms of a person who has been around politics for a long time, but he also sometimes breaks out some endearingly wonderful turns of phrase. Apart from accusing Stefanowski’s tax plan as a recipe for “mayhem” several times he once described one of his opponent’s attacks as “poppycock.” Awesome.
Stefanowski, on the other hand, has a kind of very practiced and disarming ease that makes you want to like him and impress him right up until the moment where he slips the shiv between your ribs.
He also very badly wants to be Ronald Reagan. His answer to everything is lowering taxes, and he must have said some variation of “there he goes again, heh heh heh,” four or five times. Ugh.
Both of them seem to have learned something from 2016. Lamont’s answers weren’t too wonkish and he parried Stefanowski’s attacks with just enough righteous indignation to make him seem like a fighter (Hillary Clinton, of course, was not allowed any righteous indignation).
Stefanowski realized that nobody would care whether he had an actual plan, they just wanted him to say the right things and channel their anger at the Democrats. He therefore embraced the dangerously simplistic and unsurprisingly wrong idea that cutting taxes would bring us back to the glory days of the 1980s and, cough, make Connecticut great again.
What about the substance? Surely there was some.
Well, yeah. But the upshot is also the upshot for the whole campaign so far: I found Lamont’s answers to be informed and realistic but deeply unsatisfying, and Stefanowski’s answers to be the kind of pie-in-the-sky nonsense that people want to hear.
Neither man had good answers to the two big questions of the campaign, namely, how Ned Lamont is different from Dan Malloy, and how Bob Stefanowski will pay for his tax cuts. Lamont’s line about running against Malloy in 2010 seems like a stretch, and Stefanowski’s firm belief that there’s enough “fraud and waste” in the budget to pay for his cuts sounds like (and is) a massive cop-out.
How will they govern? Governor Ned will be very nice but spin his wheels and get nowhere, while Governor Bob will make state employees account for every single sticky note while captaining the ship to the bottom of the ocean.
Lastly, this debate suffered from the lack of a perspective from outside the two-party system. Next time, invite Oz Griebel. To do anything else would be poppycock.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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