February 17, 2015

It’s funny how you’re just rolling (or limping) along for years with no one paying attention and then, boom, all of a sudden everyone is on your case. That’s the story of the MBTA lately.

Shirley Leung had a thoughtful column in the Globe the other day urging Governor Charlie Baker to ride the MBTA so he could experience what the rest of us strap hangers do about its operation. She also noted that “Baker . . . didn’t talk much about transportation on the campaign trail, and it shows now.”

But Baker wasn't asked questions about the MBTA.

A Proquest search in the Boston Globe archives for the terms “Charlie Baker” and “MBTA” from January 1, 2014 through Election Day November 4, 2014 revealed only nine stories that included both search terms, and none that involved a substantive discussion involving Baker in any conversation about the condition of the MBTA.

On the debates I have to rely on my notes taken during the debates but I don’t find any reference to the candidates being asked a question about the condition of the MBTA. (I’ll gladly admit that my notes are not comprehensive and be grateful for a correction if I am wrong). There was a question about South Coast rail, from Professor Shannon Jenkins who hosted the debate at UMass Dartmouth, which was live streamed.

We had no MBTA questions but we did have questions on Ebola, alleged scandals, are you an insider or outsider, whether or not the candidates ever smoked marijuana, Fells Acres; and of course, when was the last time you cried? We found time for Scott Lively to lecture us about abandoning our Judeo-Christian heritage in favor of Marxism.

There were substantive moments. They touched on K-12 education, higher ed, technical schools. The candidates got to talk about the state of our infrastructure, which rather than prompting much from Coakley simply lead her to the predictable attack on Baker over the Big Dig and gas tax. We had questions about the Olympics.

So if someone had thought to ask a question about the MBTA, what might we have gotten? Given that debate formats often call for answers to drone on no longer than a minute, not much. Accepting the magnitude of what we now understand to be the MBTA’s inability to deliver service in such extreme conditions, what could a candidate say in a minute? Is there anyone who could lay out the history or the state’s collective failure in a minute? Would there be any useful debate about management, costs per mile, delayed maintenance, aged cars, relations with the T’s unions, new equipment, the economic impact of shutting down service, rail expansion, relief of the T’s debt, what the future might be and who should pay?

What candidates need to achieve in a minute is to deliver a one-liner that will lead the ten and eleven o’clock news and produce headlines the next day; that will light up Twitter. What drives too many of the questions – scandals, your last time crying, lightning rounds – is the effort of media personalities to create that memorable moment that produces air time and headlines. With the image of a crying Baker comes eyeballs, and with eyeballs comes advertising revenues.

The televised debates are gladiatorial contests in which the media personalities are as important if not more so than the candidates themselves. We can’t have thinking on television and we can’t have a coherent debate on deep issues like the MBTA delivered in a snappy one minute dose.

To do better we’ll need a new way of looking at televised debates and indeed, political campaigns.

Charlie Baker, debate, MBTA

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