Analysis: Ehrlich liked the debate format, but it didn’t like him

By Len Lazarick

Bob Ehrlich said he really liked the format of Monday’s debate between himself and Gov. Martin O’Malley, but it’s not clear the debate format liked him.

Ehrlich, unlike O’Malley, did not speak to reporters immediately after the debate taped at WJZ TV Monday morning. But he did share some observations after a joint appearance with O’Malley later in the day at a disabilities forum.

“This morning’s format is what every debate should be about,” Ehrlich said to a couple of reporters. The fairly unstructured “back and forth” conversations “don’t allow themselves to sound bites.”

But while claiming to like a minimum of rules – such as no rigid 30- or 60-second rebuttals – he objected at least three times when O’Malley tried to interrupt him. “It’s my time,” Ehrlich said as O’Malley tried to talk over him. Moderator Denise Koch was hard pressed to keep the discussion on track.

It was not clear why Ehrlich insisted on calling O’Malley “gov.” The sitting governor called his Republican opponent “governor,” except for one time when he was getting really annoyed at Ehrlich’s assertions about the backlog on DNA testing and said, “Come on, Bob.”

But pointing out that superficial stuff shows the lack of news in the substance of debate.

Having won the negotiations on the format, Ehrlich failed to take full advantage of the freedom it permitted. His opening statement made no attempt to lay out the “far different views” he had from O’Malley.

“Governors count,” he insisted, although people taking the time to watch a gubernatorial debate have presumably already come to that conclusion. “It’s not about us, it’s about you,” he said, continuing that he was not there to “attempt to litigate the past.”

After a disciplined opening by O’Malley laying out his “tough decisions” in “tough times,” that’s exactly what the two men did, arguing about their records.

Despite harping on it for weeks, Ehrlich failed to hammer at the sales tax increases on 42 services he claims Democrats are considering, and spoke in vague terms about the broken departments of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, and the Environment.

Later in the day, Ehrlich would complain that O’Malley “never talks about his vision, never talks about his agenda” for the future. True enough, since “making progress” and “moving Maryland forward” are slogans, not an agenda.

But if you hadn’t been to many Ehrlich events, or read his Roadmap to 2020 — as reporters have — you would have little sense where the ex-governor wants to lead the state in any detail in the next four years. Ditto for O’Malley.

O’Malley mentioned Ehrlich’s “phony promises” on tax cuts – another example of “the former governor’s fantasy world,” as the current governor claimed he had cut taxes for the middle class. “Enough of this class warfare stuff,” Ehrlich shot back.

Enough of this baloney. How are you going to cut taxes and balance the budget, ex-gov? And current gov, what are the “tough decisions” in coming years going to look like if the “tough times” don’t match the happy talk of recovery?

That’s what I want to hear at Thursday’s debate at the Washington Post, or even the two planned radio debates later. But as the Rolling Stones sang decades ago when Bobby and Martin were children, “You can’t always get what you want.”

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