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O’Malley-Ehrlich Televised Gubernatorial Debate II at the Washington Post: Substance Same; Ehrlich Delivery Improved About 90%

–Richard E. Vatz

Well, for those who evaluate debates on elocution – not this pundit — this one was a draw. Gov. Martin O’Malley was again clear, articulate and organized, but this time so was his opponent, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich.

The unbiased behavior of the WJZ moderator and audience, however, was not matched in this debate. When the audience made its opinions known, it hooted at Gov. Ehrlich. There was a consistent if not crushing prevailing anti-Ehrlich bias from moderator Mary Jordan, the very liberal editor of Washington Post Live. Repeatedly, she angrily admonished him to cut off his answers and address himself to questions, while her behavior toward Gov. O’Malley on such matters was less frequent and virtually without affect. When it was arguable that Gov. O’Malley had failed to address or be responsive a question, there was either no moderator reaction or a very mild encouragement to do so.

The questioning by WAMU 88.5 reporter Matt Bush and WUSA News weekday anchor Derek McGinty was completely fair and right down the middle in substance and tone.

Gov. Ehrlich and Gov. O’Malley were consistent with their debate earlier this week, and indeed many of the same arguments were made, with Gov. Ehrlich being more on the top of his game in articulation and combativeness, as preciously mentioned. Gov. O’Malley played a rhetorical PREvent defense, as perhaps he, like so many others, has been transfixed by two recent polls that show a significant lead for him in the race. Candidates who believe in such polls tend to lose their aggressiveness and become vulnerable to attacks, defending their records in general metaphors, rather than specific policies and claims; thus, the Ehrlichean charge that Gov. O’Malley was “talking in clichés.”

One of a few new substantive foci was the newspaper-generated agenda item of the increased state pensions which threaten Maryland’s solvency. This significant budget-buster has been off the campaign radar, but whereas Gov. Ehrlich made specific suggestions regarding its alleviation, Gov. O’Malley made none.

There was the continuing philosophical difference displayed from their earlier encounter relating to the importance of government as the source of solutions for Maryland’s problems. Gov. Ehrlich’s default source of help for Maryland is private enterprise, and Gov. O’Malley’s is the government. Gov. O’Malley persists in belittling concerns about illegal immigration, seemingly calling all immigrants — legal and illegal — “New Americans,” while Gov. Ehrlich sees illegals as a serious threat to safety and the economy in Maryland.

Gov. Ehrlich pushed the immigration matter further, perhaps as an issue which will energize Tea Partiers in Maryland, a group Maryland Senate President Mike Miler promises will not only be irrelevant to this election, but will be pushed out of Maryland.

There was a Washington audience-specific focus this time as well on transit issues, with Gov. Ehrlich unambiguously arguing that a rapid-bus plan was feasible, but that Gov. O’Malley’s light rail preference was not.

They debated the business climate with Gov. Ehrlich arguing for a “Small Business Bill of Rights.” Gov. Ehrlich argued that we are in a “tax hell,” while Gov. O’Malley claimed that any alleged differences between Maryland and other states is belied by the relative economic success of the state. Gov. Ehrlich rejoined effectively that any such success was enabled by federal stimulus money and the “federal spigot,” the permanence of which was illusory.

The best O’Malleyan line was in response to Gov. Ehrlich’s being asked how he would make up funds lost through a restoration of a smaller sales tax, claiming he (O’Malley) knew the answer: Gov. Ehrlich “hasn’t a clue” as to how he would replace such funds.

There was a quasi-touching moment when the candidates were asked to say something positive regarding a policy of their opponent to demonstrate that reports of bad blood existing between them were exaggerated. Gov. O’Malley complimented Gov. Ehrlich on his flush tax and Gov. Ehrlich complimented O’Malley on his willingness to go through much of the public travail of a race, which this listener interpreted to mean that Gov. O’Malley was willing to debate regardless of his reported leading in the polls, a gracious concession many politicians in the apparent lead would not make.

Again, this is a race that is a choice, not an echo, and if the people of Maryland believe that only a philosophical change will alleviate their economic woes, they will find Gov. Ehrlich the winner of debate #2.

–Professor Vatz teaches political rhetoric at Towson University






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