Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Illinois U. S. Senate Dem Candidate Debate: A missed opportunity for sponsors,Hoffman and Jackson;Giannoulias another step closer to being the nominee

--ABC-7 Chicago fumbles again

ABC-7 Chicago, League of Women Voters (“LWV”) and the Better Government Association (“BGA”) sponsored a televised debate last night for the Democratic Primary U. S. Senate candidates. It was a missed opportunity all around.

This is not unusual. The past LWV-ABC 7 Chicago combination has not produced high quality debates. Adding the BGA did little to improve things.

Three Democratic U. S. Senate candidates

First, there are only three major candidates in the Democratic U. S. Senate Primary: State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, Former Chicago Urban League President Cheryle Jackson and former Ass’t U. S. Attorney and Chicago Inspector General David Hoffman. The Chicago Tribune poll of about five weeks ago puts Giannoulias at 31%, Jackson at 17% and Hoffman at 9%. By LWV standards that require 5% in an impartial poll, Hoffman barely made it. Dr. Robert Marshall and Jacob Meister, with 1% or less, weren’t even close. Meister claims to have “an internal poll,” that qualifies him. We know about the accuracy of the internal polls. I don’t know what the argument is from Marshall to include him. He is a doctor?

Simply put, neither Meister nor Marshall has a political base, an organization or any demonstrated substance to their campaigns. Including them in the debate simply makes it harder for voters to get a sense of the knowledge, the abilities and the issue contrasts of the real candidates.

The problems with a panel of questioners

Second, dispersing the responsibility for the debate questions among three people—ABC 7 Political Editor Charles Thomas, Sun-Times columnist Laura Washington and BGA Executive Director Andy Shaw—only serves to make the debate topics and issues covered almost incoherent. The lack of follow-up obviates the need to have journalists participating. You could have robo-journalists and get the same result

A single journalist

A much better result would be to find one journalist who knows the issues and knows how to examine the candidates in a lively, thoughtful, challenging and fair manner. Of course, that journalist would be allowed to ask follow-ups, especially when the candidates filibuster and duck and dodge, of which we had quite a bit last night. Further, the format should promote and allow for some spontaneous conversation among the candidates.

The above-suggested modifications would make for a more informative debate, better TV and better ratings. A win-win all around. In all modesty, I follow this kind of model weekly on my TV show.[Watch here]. Yes, it is a bit less of a challenge because we usually have only one guest. But, I tried it a few years back with multiple candidates in the Libertarian Presidential Primary and it worked fine.

An off night for David Hoffman

Third, last night was a missed opportunity for Hoffman and Jackson to close in on Giannoulias’ lead. Hoffman, who excelled a few weeks ago at the Union League Club of Chicago debate [see here] was off his game last night. Apparently, Hoffman needs someone to take a few verbal punches at him before he can get his adrenalin going. At the Union League Club debate, Giannoulias, the leader in the race, stupidly obliged by going after Hoffman.

Last night, Giannoulias was disciplined and constrained his behavior to a few light jabs in response to Hoffman’s punches. Further, Giannoulias had his laundry list economic plan at the ready and he reminded voters, often, about the 600 jobs he “saved,” at Hartmarx. You would think Hoffman might have said 600 jobs are nice, but if you want to be a U.S. Senator, Alexi, you need to learn something about macro-economic policy so you can help all the unemployed people in Illinois get jobs, not just 600 over three years. But Hoffman never challenged Giannoulias on that aspect of his “job performance,” as Treasurer. In the words of lawyers, Giannoulias opened the door and Hoffman never shut it.

Hoffman fails to connect the dots to Alexi's family bank

Hoffman stayed on message mostly with his allegations that Giannoulias was asleep at the switch in his oversight of Oppenheimer’s management of the Bright Start Fund. Hoffman also placed a parent in the audience who lost a lot of her kid’s college investment fund, due to Giannoulias’ alleged negligence. Those were nice efforts by the former federal prosecutor, David Hoffman, but they fell short of the mark. Hoffman needed to connect the dots from the Bright Start mess to the mess at Giannoulias family bank. He never did it. This journalist touched on that issue in the post debate presser with Giannoulias, but it is doubtful many voters will see that exchange.

Hoffman fails to connect the dots to the job losses

Further, Hoffman needed to argue that voters can’t trust Giannoulias’ economic plan because Giannoulias engaged in the same irresponsible lending at his family bank [Broadway Bank] as did the Big banks, which Hoffman could have argued is responsible for the job losses in Illinois and across the county. Notice those dots: Bright Start to Broadway Bank to job losses. But, Hoffman fell way short of making that connection.

Moreover, Hoffman’s opening statement and close were awkward and his words were jumbled. He appeared to be looking for a teleprompter, but there wasn’t one. For much of the evening, former federal prosecutor Hoffman seemed unprepared and simply out of sync. Giannoulias, on the other hand, seemed relaxed, unruffled and personable. Advantage Giannoulias.

Cheryle Jackson, above the fray

Cheryle Jackson played the school marm. Why are you boys fighting? Why don’t you behave? Sure, she said, she along with millions of voters was fooled by Rod Blagojevich’s lofty goals and promises to help the people. So, it took her almost four years of working for then Governor Blagojevich to figure out what a “corrupt, pay for play on steroids,” kind of guy he was. Jackson seemed to see no difference between her being a part of Blago’s inner circle and some poor schlep who voted for Rod. Really?

Neglected debate topics

Then there were the topics that were virtually completely omitted from real discussion at the so-called debate: Healthcare reform; the significance of the war on terrorism, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia; bailouts, 1.5 trillion dollar deficits as far as the eye can see, the failures of the $800 billion economic stimulus plan to keep unemployment below 10%, as the Obama Administration had promised, the sub-par economic performance of Illinois in the last eight years, the nuclear threat posed by Iran, education reform, closing Gitmo and opening the Thomson Correction Center to detained terrorists, the 700 billion dollar financial sector bailout, NAFTA, CAFTA and similar free trade agreements, Card Check and social/ cultural issues (with the exception of Cheryle Jackson telling us a woman’s right to choose trumped healthcare reform)

Post debate pressers

The pressers with each candidate after the debate were interesting and fun, but most people won’t see or hear much about them, so they can certainly wait for another day, in terms of this journalist’s report.

Hoffman, no strategic plan?

With twenty-one shopping days left for Hoffman, it looks like his campaign is content to fight this out with paid media—probably not a wise strategic decision. If I didn’t know better, I would say Hoffman is taking a dive. I mean, he threw some good punches, and jabbed nicely, but there seemed to be little in the way of a grand strategic plan.

Jackson, building a small coalition?

Cheryle Jackson appears to be focused on mobilizing her African-American base by staying above the Giannoulias-Hoffman slugfest and continuously reminding her bases how much she cares about helping them find jobs and re-structure their mortgages. Perhaps Jackson thinks she can meld together a 90% turnout in the African-American community with enough white women to squeeze past Giannoulias. However, she needs a strong showing by Hoffman, but not too strong, to propel her past Giannoulias. Good luck.

Still Alexi’s to lose?

In short, unless Hoffman or Jackson come up with a new approach or Giannoulias stumbles badly, on his own, in the next three weeks, the Democrats are going to find out in November if they can keep the Senate Seat, even though the Blago-Rezko corruption issue is still on the table.