When it came to talk of debates with reelection opponent Elizabeth Warren, Scott Brown initially controlled the argument.
Now, that clarity is muddled.
This week he insisted that Victoria Reggie Kennedy, who had proposed hosting a debate, abandon her right to endorse a candidate in the race as a precondition to Brown accepting the invitation.
In other words, an incumbent senator demanded that the patron of a debate abandon their First Amendment rights if that sponsor wanted to provide a forum for the free exchange of ideas.
A Kennedy, even one by marriage, agreeing to put a muzzle on her political views?
The demand was destined at the outset for rejection, as, perhaps, was Vicki Kennedy’s debate invitation itself.
The question comes over any fallout.
Does rejecting a request made by the widow of Senator Edward M. Kennedy come off as churlish and petty, hurting Brown not just with liberal Democrats but independents? Does it enhance his stature with Republicans and more conservative Reagan Democrats, who feared a debate trap and urged him to display backbone?
Or is it a wash for both candidates?
Warren touched off the debate debate after she claimed her party’s endorsement on June 2 at the Democratic State Convention. The Harvard Law School professor immediately proclaimed herself ready and eager to debate Brown.
As has been he case through much of the race, though, Warren did not appear ready for the Brown campaign’s quick and aggressive response.
The senator responded the next morning with a statement congratulating her on her convention win—and declaring he had accepted a debate invitation from WBZ radio talk show host Dan Rea.
The next day, the Brown campaign issued another statement saying the senator had accepted a debate invitation from WTKK radio talk show hosts Jim Braude and Margery Eagan.
The following day, the Brown campaign was back at it, announcing it had accepted a debate invitation from WBZ-TV political analyst Jon Keller.
Along the way, Brown campaign manager Jim Barnett refused a request from Warren’s campaign manager, Mindy Myers, to cull through their invitations and agree to acceptable venues and dates.
In the end, Brown had seized the initiative: He had accepted two radio debates, guaranteed to have smaller audiences than televised debates, and one TV debate, confined to a single station.
One of the radio debates was with Rea, a longtime TV newsman who espouses conservative views and openly describes himself as Brown’s friend. The other was with Braude, a Democrat and former Cambridge city councilor, and Eagan, a liberal columnist at the conservative Boston Herald—a forum potentially more favorable to Warren though Eagan recently fawned over one of Brown’s TV ads.
The lone TV debate to which Brown initially agreed was with Keller, a veteran media personality and debate moderator known to be especially tough on the state’s Democratic political culture.
The title for his 2007 book is, “The Bluest State: How Democrats Created the Massachusetts Blueprint for American Political Disaster.”
The Brown campaign’s refusal to negotiate prompted the Warren camp to issue its own unilateral debate acceptances.
It agreed to the Keller TV debate, and accepted a televised debate proposed by a western Massachusetts media consortium. Brown later accepted that debate, too, meaning the candidates have agreed—through statements transmitted at arm’s length via the media—to two TV debates.
The Warren campaign has remained silent, however, on the radio invitations, knowing that Brown has said he will do only four debates overall. The Warren campaign’s calculus is if it accepts the radio debates, Brown will proclaim himself finished with the discussion after two TV debates and two radio debates.
Warren wants four TV debates, as the challenger seeks maximum exposure for her campaign.
The candidates remain flooded with other debate invitations, including one from a Boston media consortium that includes the Globe, and another that would be jointly sponsored by the Herald and the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
Vicki Kennedy inserted herself into the conversation last week, when the public learned she had invited Brown and Warren to a late September debate she proposed be co-sponsored by the University of Massachusetts Boston and the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate.
The institute is being built on Columbia Point on land between UMass Boston and the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum.
The widow has worked aggressively to maintain the prominence of her late husband’s name, and to develop the institute into a civic player, just as other relatives have with the JFK Library.
Her stature is also connected to the prominence of that legacy. Her political impact is suspect, though.
In 2010, Vicki Kennedy endorsed Democrat Martha Coakley in the special election to replace her husband. Brown won the campaign.
“The EMK Institute is nonpartisan and committed to educating our public about our government—especially the United States Senate,” Kennedy, president of the institute’s board of directors, wrote in her debate invitation. “UMass Boston, the only public university in the city, is dedicated to opening the doors of educational opportunity. ...The missions of the EMK Institute and the university dovetail perfectly with the goal of a serious Senate debate and exchange of ideas.”
She suggested the debate be held at the UMass Boston Campus Center, broadcast locally on NBC-TV affiliates, and possibly to a national audience via MSNBC.
She also proposed Tom Brokaw, the longtime anchor of NBC Nightly News, as the moderator.
Warren immediately accepted, but a Brown spokesman would only say the invitation was being considered.
The claim that the institute, named for a liberal Democratic icon, was “nonpartisan” was immediately branded by some as laughable.
The Herald—which is still eagerly working to get the candidates to participate in the debate it has proposed with UMass Lowell—published several front-pages stories and opinion columns criticizing the proposal co-sponsored by the rival UMass campus in Boston.
The senator himself was silent on the proposal until Monday, when his campaign manager said Brown would participate only if Vicki Kennedy agreed “that she will not endorse or otherwise get involved in this race.”
While the Brown camp accepted Brokaw as a proposed moderator, it also rejected MSNBC as a broadcast partner, saying the cable network had “a reputation for political advocacy.”
On Tuesday, representatives of the Kennedy Institute and UMass Boston wrote back to the Brown campaign, accepting the MSNBC condition but rejecting the proposed muzzle on Vicki Kennedy.
“This non-endorsement pledge is unprecedented and is not being required of any other persons or entities,” wrote the Kennedy and UMass Boston representatives. “To us, such a pledge seems inappropriate when a non-media sponsor issues a debate invitation. We can assure both campaigns that the debate will be fair, just as the one we cosponsored between Senator Brown and Attorney General Martha Coakley in 2010 was fair.”
The Brown campaign was unpersuaded, answering, “We respect Vicki Kennedy’s decision but we regret that we cannot accept a debate invitation from someone who plans to endorse Scott Brown’s opponent. The Kennedy Institute cannot hold itself out as a nonpartisan debate sponsor while the president of its board of trustees gets involved in the race on behalf of one of the candidates.”
The debate—at the same university where Brown gained national stature by proclaiming during a 2010 debate that he was campaigning not for “Ted Kennedy’s seat” but “the People’s seat,” and just around the corner from the Senate institute whose ground-breaking he attended last year—was scuttled.Glen Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.