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The Boston Globe

Opinion

SCOT LEHIGH

Democrats offer candor and caution

When the five Democrats who would be governor came to the Globe for a Boston.Comment debate on Wednesday, their exchange and interviews afterward provided some clarifying contrasts in conviction and calculation, candor and caution.

Don Berwick, the pediatrician and former administrator of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, is obviously the field’s true liberal believer. He’d fight to amend the state constitution to allow for a graduated income tax. And he also declared himself committed to moving the state to a single-payer health care system. No matter where you stand on those issues, give him credit for having the courage of his convictions.

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Awkward as her candidacy may be for us at the Globe, where she was recently a columnist, Homeland Security maven Juliette Kayyem also turned in a performance noteworthy for its forthrightness. She was, for example, firmly in favor of a statewide graduation test, and despite the popularity of single-payer with many Democratic activists, Kayyem didn’t mince words about her stand. She told Berwick that in her view, single-payer isn’t a winning political fight for the Democrats and not one she would wage.

Treasurer Steve Grossman, by contrast, seemed to want to cantilever a carefully calibrated stand into an impression of boldness. Reluctant to cede the lefty cred that comes with single-payer advocacy to Berwick, Grossman engaged the former CMS chief in a pointed exchange. Noting that he had also talked about single-payer, Grossman demanded to know whether Berwick was advocating such a system or just saying it should be on the table. Berwick’s answer — he wants to institute single-payer — didn’t seem to be what Grossman expected.

“I said yes. Are you saying yes?” Berwick counter-challenged.

The gubernatorial debate left me interested — and wanting more specifics.

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“No, I said I would put it on the table, and I would study it,” Grossman said.

Score that one for Berwick, at least as far as clarity is concerned.

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Credit the treasurer for offering an instructive point to his fellow Democrats, however: They shouldn’t be promising new programs like universal pre-K without giving a better idea of how they would pay for them. In a room humid with Democratic policy dreams, that seemed like a refreshingly realistic revenue reminder. But Grossman’s own stand — he won’t “rule out” higher taxes, as long as families earning $60,000 or less are held harmless — conveys an impression of more boldness than it actually embraces. No Democrat has categorically ruled out taxes.

That said, Grossman’s answer was better than Martha Coakley’s. The attorney general emphasized the need for both pre-K and a longer school day and talked about a range of other new services she favored. The longer school day alone, if done for all kids in the state, would cost at least half a billion dollars. But when asked, during the debate and afterward, how she’d pay for her plans, Coakley offered only vague nostrums, saying savings could be found in health care spending and prison policy, and that she’d target “waste, fraud, and abuse.” I noted that among budgeteers, that phrase is considered an empty answer aimed at sidestepping tough budgetary realities.

“Well, it’s my answer,” she said. “We’ll have to agree to disagree on that one.”

In contrast to that obvious sidestep, however, Coakley spoke with clarity when the debate turned to the troubled Department of Children and Families, insisting the department needs an internal division dedicated solely to protecting children.

“If you have a 24-year-old social worker, no matter how much experience he or she has, and you send them into a home that is dysfunctional and say, your job is to try to keep this family together but keep the child safe, you are going to have mistakes like we’ve had,” she said.

The knowledge and conviction she displayed there made it her best moment of the afternoon.

Joe Avellone, a bio-pharmaceutical executive, was harder to get a fix on. At some points, he seemed conservative compared to his rivals. For example, he appeared firmest about not raising taxes and most vocal in his opposition to single payer. On the other hand, he also seemed skeptical about a standardized graduation test — and made a strong pitch for a revenue-neutral carbon tax to battle climate change.

Did this debate leave me interested and wanting more? Well, let’s put it this way. It left me interested — and wanting more specifics.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GlobeScotLehigh.

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