De Bait

The hardworking staff at Campaign Journal swung by WBZ-TV tonight for the inaugural  2009 Boston mayoral debate. Throughout the hourlong bakeoff, WBZ’s Jon Keller did a good job of what was essentially herding cats and one Big Dog. Regardless, the four candidates delivered a compact, if not exactly lively, introduction to the race.

From the first question – is Boston better or worse now than it was four years ago – each challenger to incumbent Tom Menino staked out his particular strategic turf. For Boston City Councilor Michael Flaherty, the future of Boston is not political, “it’s personal.” For fellow City Councilor Sam Yoon, the problem in Boston is its “strong mayor system” that puts excessive power in the hands of “a single person.” Real-estate developer Kevin McCrea simply assailed the “corrupt City Hall.”

Menino, for his part, adopted the death-by-a-thousand-facts strategy. He spent much of the night responding to the challengers’ criticism by lobbing back numbers gleaned from extensive notes he had at his rostrum.  Menino’s reliance on statistics – by turn relevant and irrelevant – finally goaded Yoon into quoting Mark Twain ( or Benjamin Disraeli) to the effect that there are lies, damned lies, and statistics.

That didn’t do either Menino or Yoon very much good.

Overall, the first half of the debate was very much Hop on Pop, with the challengers jumping on Menino like kids trying to wrestle Dad to the ground.

But in the second half Menino got frustrated or flusterated or just plain weary, and from that point on he took the bait and played defense.

Problem was, all three challengers were more articulate than Menino, more forward-looking, and more energetic. Menino came across as old, tired, and – all too often – tongue-tied. (Perhaps the next debate can be close-captioned for the Menino-impaired.)

Bottom line: There was no clear winner of the WBZ debate. But there certainly seemed to be a clear loser.

UPDATE: Most of the debate postmortems (see here and here) thought it went swimmingly for Menino, but this Boston Globe editorial landed on my side of the ledger. (Yikes. Should I be worried about that?)

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