If you're a registered voter in Massachusetts, your friendly Democratic Senate candidate, Martha Coakley, is sticking her thumb in your eye.
Coakley, in exquisitely diva-like form, is refusing all invitations to debate her Republican opponent in the race, Scott Brown, unless a third-party candidate with no apparent credentials is included on the stage. She may also require a crystal bowl of orange-only M&Ms in her dressing room, but we haven't gotten that far yet. Her demands have led to an astonishing result: there will be just one -- that's one -- live televised debate in the Boston media market this general election season.
Think about that for a moment. We tend to elect our members of Congress for life in this state, especially when they're Democrats, which they usually are. This particular race, a special election, has unfolded at breakneck speed. We have two barely known candidates -- Coakley has run statewide just once, Brown is a state senator from exurbia -- trying to fill a huge void at a time of war and economic upheaval.
And Coakley's overriding strategy is to quietly back into the job, to have you, the voter, know less about the major candidates rather than more.
Politically, this is not necessarily unwise of her. She is the front-runner, in terms of name recognition and stature.
She's also, as the Democrat, the default candidate for many Massachusetts voters. She's counting on voters, knowledgeable or not, to reflexively pull the Democratic lever.
So she plays the fairness card, saying that all candidates on the ballot have the right to be included in all the debates -- and if they're not, then she's not debating. The Volvo drivers from Lincoln and Concord lap this stuff up with a spoon, and when media outlets like the Globe, NECN, WGBH-TV, and WCVB-TV refuse to pander to her, it gets her off scott (Brown) free.
This is all part of a Coakley pattern. When she ran for attorney general, she didn't allow even the Republican candidate on a debate stage. In fact, she refused to debate at all.
History doesn't help her case. In 1996, incumbent Senator John Kerry engaged in a long series of smart debates against his Republican challenger, then Governor Bill Weld. For the record, there was a notable third-party candidate, Susan Gallagher, who had right-wing beliefs that eventually won her 70,013 votes. Kerry would have benefited from her being on the stage, but never pushed it.
In 1994, when incumbent Ted Kennedy squared off against challenger Mitt Romney in the legendary Faneuil Hall debate, they were the only two on the stage. There was, for the record, a third-party candidate on the ballot, Libertarian Lauraleigh Dozier, who was not included.
Both Kerry and Kennedy had the confidence in themselves, and the respect for the voters, to debate their major challenger one-on-one. Coakley does not.
Here's one problem with all this: When you're a United States senator, you're expected to get up on the Senate floor and forcefully debate the issues of the day. You're expected to be a strong voice in hearings. You need to be a major factor in conference committees. Sometimes, you're left to push politically unpopular issues against formidable opponents.
Coakley is showing precisely none of this. She wants to debate on her terms and her terms only.
For that matter, let's take a look at Coakley's campaign schedule for today. Well, actually, we can't. There isn't one. She isn't doing anything in public -- no meetings with voters, no debates, no public appearances. For all we know, she's spending much of her time at home with the shades drawn waiting for Jan. 19, Election Day, to come and go.
Which is the real problem with all this. Voters want their political candidates to earn the position -- with hard work, innovative ideas, and a hearty nod to the process. The funny part about a good campaign is that voters not only get to meet the candidate, but the candidate gets to meet the voters and learn what's on their minds.
In Washington, senators don't get to dodge their opponents. Right now, dodging looks like the Coakley way.
Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at McGrory@Globe.com
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