I’ve had bad things to say about the Murphy campaign in recent days, and I confess I wasn’t prepared for what I saw on Sunday morning. After a slightly wobbly first 15 minutes, Chris Murphy turned the debate utterly to his own advantage, won nearly every exchange and fanned the flame of the most significant suspicion about Linda McMahon: that when you take away the expensive media campaign she still doesn’t know her way around public policy, because she only started caring about it a few years ago.
Before I say anything else, hats off to Dennis House and his panel. This was everything Denver wasn’t in terms of structure and accountability. Angela Diaz deserves some special credit for digging in and pressing when her questions weren’t answered.
Murphy deserves a lot of credit for being everything Obama wasn’t in Denver. Some of the same issues came up, and Murphy framed them energetically and explained some of his criticisms of McMahon without turning wonky.
McMahon was surprisingly bad. There are two ways to prepared for a debate. (1) You can really immerse yourself in the issues that and make sure you know how you want to talk about them. (2) You can memorize answers.
McMahon had pretty clearly done the latter for at least some of her preparation. She had also been coached on a particular kind of “shame on you” scolding session she needed to do, intended for future use in commercials. (She went out of her way to do two takes, just in case.) But that still left a lot subjects she just wasn’t ready for.
The debate slipped away from her exactly as she answered (or didn’t answer) a Diaz question about payroll taxes. Diaz pressed her a little more. Still no real answer. Then Murphy pounced: “That was a minute and 30 seconds of ‘I’m not going to tell you what I’m going to do if you elect me.’ ”
Murphy turned that into a refrain, noting several other occasions when McMahon either wouldn’t or couldn’t come up with specifics — especially on a Pazniokas question about poverty. Just a little debating point there. You have to debate in the moment. You have to talk about what’s happening in the debate right now. Murphy was very good at that today.
McMahon never quite recovered. Even so, nothing really explains her astonishing moment of blankness when asked about same-sex marriage. She stumbled through an answer in which she affirmed her support for “America’s same sex marriage law.” There is, of course, no such thing, unless she means DOMA, which is sort of the opposite. And then she just stopped, with probably more than a minute left on her clock. Nobody does that. If you’ve got a short answer, you pivot and talk about something loosely related with your remaining time. She seemed inexplicably rattled by this benign, predictable and routine question. (This is what happens when you spend your whole campaign dodging the press. You turn into the kind of candidate who can’t improvise.)
As the issue-based battles started slipping away from her, McMahon upped the ante on the personal attacks. If you’re a little tired of the way this campaign has been almost exclusively about attacks on character and very little about the issues, let the word go forth that McMahon was far more reliant on this strategy than was Murphy on Sunday. Paradoxically, late in the debate she unsheathed a new kind of negative rhetoric, claiming that Murphy had expected a coronation and instead found himself in a tough campaign with a serious woman. The paradox: never before in this campaign had she seemed less like a serious woman. She seemed like a silly woman who had attempted to substitute recent study sessions for the years of immersion one might expect an aspiring senator to have had. Even in her summation, when most candidates return to their biggest themes, she used the time to peck at Murphy about a supposed sweetheart mortgage.
It was instead Murphy who seemed, for the first time in this campaign, like a serious, plausibly senatorial, fully prepared politician. Where has this guy been?
There are of course more debates yet to come, and things may change. Memo to Murphy: She keeps harping on the idea that she has “a plan.” I’d question that. In fact, it often seems that a plan is precisely what she does not have, if we can agree that a plan explains how you can make good on your promises. She has a long list of promises, not so much by way of plan. So you say: “When I tell my kids we’re going to Disneyworld, that’s a promise. When my wife and I sit down and figure our how we’re gonna pay for it, that’s a plan.”