Laslo Boyd: Did the Brown-Hogan Debate Make Any Difference?

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By: Laslo Boyd 

Trying to unravel the claims, accusations, distortions, fog, and evasion of this week's gubernatorial debate might have left your head spinning, but it certainly did not give you a better basis for choosing between the two candidates.

While neither Anthony Brown nor Larry Hogan made a blunder that would have led one of them to be judged the loser of the debate, neither made a convincing case to be declared the winner either. Supporters of each candidate undoubtedly saw their guy as having trounced the other, but that was evident even before the debate started.

If there were any genuinely undecided voters watching, you might excuse them for concluding that staying home on Election Day is the best choice. That doesn’t mean, however, that nothing of consequence occurred in this first of three televised debates.

All of the recent polls conclude that the economy is the number one issue on the minds of Marylanders. Unfortunately, you learned almost nothing about what either Brown or Hogan would do to try to improve the state's business climate, job creation, or economic growth. The questioners, Vic Carter and Andy Green, didn't push very hard on the topic, asked vague rather than pointed questions, and never did follow-up – though I must acknowledge that it can't be easy to moderate a debate when the candidates are so committed to their non-specific talking points.

The lack of follow-up may have been a format requirement of the candidates, but Carter in his introduction never explained anything other than the time allotment for answers.

Hogan, as the challenger, should have had an advantage on issues related to the economy but couldn’t get out from under his own clichés. He promised to get “government off our backs and out of our pockets.” Hogan also asserted that on the first day of his administration, “Maryland would be open for business.” And of course, he repeated incessantly his talking point that under the O’Malley-Brown Administration, there had been 40 consecutive tax increases.

Brown avoided clichés, but also avoided specifics. He repeated his oft-mentioned goal of Maryland having the best business climate in the nation, but gave no indication how that would be achieved. Brown is for encouraging entrepreneurs with targeted tax credits—with no specific examples. He did make news by promising no additional tax increases. One of Hogan’s better retorts was to wonder where Brown has been on improving the business climate over the past eight years.

The vagueness of their responses on a question about addressing the state’s fiscal challenges was emblematic of much of the debate. Neither identified any specific budget cuts and both criticized the other for playing fast and loose with the truth.

One of the most curious moments of the debate occurred during this segment.  Brown, in rebuttal, talked about his record of success in office including overseeing the base realignment process with its many new jobs and state initiatives to partner with the private sector. He notably did not mention his role in the health care role out in Maryland. While neither Carter nor Green asked about this issue which was so controversial during the primaries, Hogan inexplicably failed to say anything about it either.

On a number of issues, the two candidates appeared to agree or at least asserted that they did.  Hogan insisted that he also was a supporter of expanding Pre-K education, but didn’t think the funding was currently available.   Both claimed to be strong supporters of the Chesapeake Bay, although with totally different perspectives. 

Brown and Hogan endorsed a non-partisan approach to legislation reapportionment and both voiced compassion for the challenges of undocumented immigrants coming into the United States.

These last four examples demonstrate that you shouldn’t always take candidate’s assertions on a position at face value. There are real practical differences between Brown and Hogan on all four issues. You have to decide whether Brown is making promises without fully acknowledging the costs and whether Hogan is trying to moderate his image in a state that is relatively liberals on these questions.

Both candidates tried to maneuver around each of their fundamental challenges. For Brown, being a member of the O’Malley Administration ties him directly to the record of the incumbent governor. His campaign has focused heavily on the perceived successes over the past eight years, which has left him little or no room to disagree or criticize any of the policies.

Hogan repeatedly slammed those policies as the centerpiece of his own claim to office.  In a state with an overwhelming Democratic advantage in registered voters, that’s a risky gambit, but probably the only one that Hogan has available to him.

Similarly, Hogan has the tall order of convincing Democrats and independents that his views on controversial social issues are either not relevant or have been distorted by the Brown campaign. Trying to appear moderate on hot button issues is a tactic you see being employed by other Republicans as well, most notably Allan Kittleman in the race for Howard County Executive.

Both Hogan and Kittleman are particularly vulnerable on their previously stated opposition to gun laws, including the 2013 legislation in Maryland. It was recently reported that Hogan has given assurances to gun advocates that he would implement the law in a way that gives them maximum latitude. The backlash on that revelation is likely to also undercut Kittleman’s claim that being County Executive has no relevance to state gun laws.

The debate at times degenerated to school yard taunts as each candidate channeled Ronald Reagan’s old line about “there you go again” not telling the truth. On balance, neither candidate excelled, nor did either one do anything that resulted in self-inflicted damage. 

One interpretation of that outcome is that challenger Larry Hogan benefits from staying even with the presumed front-runner, Anthony Brown. Given the disparities in party registration, however, a draw doesn’t really help Hogan much. This is still Brown’s race to lose and he came out of Monday in no worse shape than before.

Voters, on the other hand, did not learn much about what either candidate would do in office if elected governor in November.  And that is what elections should be about.

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Laslo Boyd's professional experience includes serving as education advisor to the Governor of Maryland, Acting Secretary of Higher Education, senior administrator in several higher education institutions and university professor.  His work in political campaigns has involved strategic communications, public opinion polling, and development of position papers.  Dr. Boyd has consulted for a wide range of clients in higher education, government, and business.  He has provided political commentary and analysis in both print and electronic media.