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scot lehigh

Scott Brown bests Vicki Kennedy in debate over debate

Scott Brown 1, Vicki Kennedy 0.

That’s the score after the latest round of the Debate over Debates.

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Our story so far: Amid concerns that Senator Brown might try to duck high-profile Senate campaign debates this fall, Vicki Kennedy, widow of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, invited Brown and Elizabeth Warren to participate in a Sept. 26 debate hosted by the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate and UMass Boston. The event was to be moderated by Tom Brokaw, and (perhaps) televised by MSNBC.

On Monday, Brown said an unexpected yes, with conditions: He’d participate if the Kennedy Institute would find local media sponsors rather than MSNBC, and if Vicki Kennedy, president of the fledgling institute’s board of directors, promised to stay neutral in this campaign.

A day later, after a round of consulting and fretting and temporizing, the Kennedy camp responded via a two-page letter issued through the institute and UMass Boston. The lion’s share of that missive was essentially devoted to chastising Brown for trying to keep Kennedy on the campaign sidelines. “This non-endorsement pledge is unprecedented and is not being required of any other persons or entities,” said the letter. Perhaps not — but neither is there another figure whose role is similar to the one Vicki Kennedy has as the legendary senator’s widow and the president of the institute’s board. Brown’s campaign, in turn, declined the debate.

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This was an important moment for both Brown and Kennedy.

Brown passed. Kennedy stumbled.

Let’s start with Brown. His campaign’s refusal to negotiate with Warren’s over when and where to debate seems high-handed and cavalier; it’s more what one would expect from an entrenched, arrogant incumbent than from a supposedly genial, bipartisan, everyday guy. Yet when it comes to a possible Kennedy Institute debate, Brown’s conditions were reasonable on both fronts.

Just as one wouldn’t expect Warren to jump at the prospect of debating on Fox News, it’s understandable that Brown would be wary about MSNBC and seek a more even-handed media sponsor. It’s encouraging that Brown’s campaign expressed an openness to making the Boston media consortium (which includes the Globe) a partner in the debate; that would give the event the local prominence it deserves.

As for his condition that Kennedy stay neutral in the race, her debate invitation gave Brown his opening.

“The EMK Institute is nonpartisan and committed to educating our public about our government — especially the United States Senate — with an eye toward invigorating public discourse, encouraging participatory democracy, and inspiring the next generation of citizens and leaders,” she wrote.

Well, OK, but please prove that putative nonpartisanship, the Brown campaign essentially replied.

“Vicki Kennedy assured us in her June 8 letter that the Kennedy Institute is ‘nonpartisan’ and would therefore be an appropriate setting for a Senate debate,” wrote Jim Barnett, Brown’s campaign manager. “In order to proceed, we need to know that in keeping with the spirit of neutrality expressed in Vicki Kennedy’s letter that she will not endorse or otherwise get involved in this race.’’ Put to that test, Vicki Kennedy’s nonpartisan professions turned out to be more rhetorical than real.

All in all, this was well handled on Brown’s part.

The same can’t be said about Kennedy. When she told me, in January of 2011, that she wasn’t going to run against Brown, Kennedy stressed that she wanted to help build the Kennedy Institute into a place that has an important educational and research role. Great — but if she wants Brown’s participation in an event that would highlight the institute, it’s certainly fair for Brown to expect that she, as president of the institute’s board, won’t later be hitting the campaign trail against him.

But Kennedy seems to have decided her political role takes precedence over the institute’s nonpartisan educational one.

That’s mystifying. After all, it’s not as though voters are going to make up their minds in the Brown-Warren race based on whether or not Vicki Kennedy publicly supports Warren.

Ideally, Kennedy would backtrack and accept Brown’s offer, though I’m not holding my breath.

As for Brown, he handled this skillfully. Still, that skill shouldn’t obscure this reality: He still owes Massachusetts voters a couple of high-profile prime-time Boston-area TV debates.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com.
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