Degrees of nuttiness. Not that anyone was watching -- after all, Chief Moose was live, just a click away -- but last night's gubernatorial debate left me worried. Will independent Barbara Johnson's idiotic performance be used to discredit the idea of opening future debates to candidates other than Democrats and Republicans? I'm afraid it will. She interrupted. She constantly ran over her time limit. She said that Libertarian Carla Howell "is ready for a 30-day mental observation," which brings to mind nothing so much as pots and kettles. She continually tried the patience of moderator Chet Curtis, the most patient of men.
The fact is that four people had earned the right to be up there. Democrat Shannon O'Brien, Republican Mitt Romney, the Green Party's Jill Stein, and Howell are all the nominees of recognized political parties, all of which earned that recognition by winning at least three percent of the vote in the last statewide election. You can argue that Howell's ideas are nutty all you want (hey, I won't disagree), but she got 12 percent when she ran against Ted Kennedy in 2000. Go ahead and say that Stein is out of touch. Critics (me included) said the same thing about her party's presidential candidate, Ralph Nader, two years ago, but that didn't stop six percent of the Massachusetts electorate from backing him. Stein and Howell represent legitimate political movements comprising real people. Johnson has proven nothing other than her ability to get 10,000 signatures.
This morning, though, the pundits are lumping Stein, Howell, and Johnson together, as though they all represent something equally frivolous and trivial. The Globe's Scot Lehigh dismissed Stein for her rhymes (whoops, guess he'll dismiss that phrase, too), such as "a boom for whom?" and "payoffs for layoffs." Okay, but here are just a few of the idiotic clichés that the consensus "winner," Romney, mouthed last night: "squealing like a stuck pig"; "a leopard doesn't change its spots" (those two documented by the Globe's Joan Vennochi, among others); and "You can't ride the low road throughout the whole campaign and then say, 'I want to jump on the high horse.' We're not going to change the rules in the middle of the game" (the Herald's David Guarino and Steve Marantz). Compared to those banalities, Rhymin' Stein comes off as positively eloquent.
Putting all five up there is better than restricting it to Romney and O'Brien. But I've said it before and I'll say it again: it would have been a real act of guts and judgment to include the four major-party candidates and exclude Johnson. It's not that an independent should never be included; but poll numbers and the presence or lack of a political organization ought to come into play at some point. The major-party candidates, by contrast, represent organizations have already proven themselves in the only poll that matters, the one that takes place on Election Day.
Oh, who won? Like I said, the pundit consensus this morning appears to favor Romney. The Herald's Joe Battenfeld is particularly over-the-top with his pro-Romney spin. Personally, I thought Stein won. She was better prepared and more focused than she was during the first debate. The only time she seemed nervous was during her closing statement. And she got off the best line of the night, as the Globe noted on its editorial page. In a rebuke to O'Brien and Romney, who talk mainly about their management and business experience, Stein said that what's needed is someone to run the state "not like a business but like a democracy."