No debates? As long as candidates get a vote, get used to it

An annual election year ritual is columnists and editorial writers lecturing candidates and their handlers about their civic duty to engage in candidate debates and town halls.

I agree. As a citizen, voter, policy wonk and political junkie, I think candidate debates give us a good vehicle to compare and contrast candidates and their positions.

As imperfect as they are, they can be a valuable part of our democratic system. And for most of us with our mind already made up, they can be good political theater where we cheer for our candidate and jeer the dufus the other party put up.

But state candidate debates, modeled after the presidential debates, are fewer and fewer in Michigan. As Carol Cain, Detroit Free Press columnist put it: “Circle 2014 as the year debates morphed into irrelevancy as a path to getting elected in Michigan’s two major statewide races.”

A political consultant said: “The problem with debates is that they just don’t matter. There is no real benefit even to the public. They’re old. Gone. Dying. Dead. The goal is engagement. Conversation. Discussion of ideas.”

So, why won't all candidates debate? Because their goal is to get elected to office, not assuage editorial writers. A candidate and his or her managers have a limited number of tools and resources to win. If they believe a debate or town hall helps them win, they will accept. But, both candidates have their own strategies and both have to agree to the number, terms, format and a myriad of other issues before debates will be scheduled. (Full disclosure: I worked as debate negotiator for the Terri Lynn Land Senate campaign, for Dick DeVos in 2006 and was chairman of the GOP primary debate commission in 2010.)

Former state representative and co-director of the Michigan Political Leadership Program Steve Tobocman has said “debates are only a thing of the past when politicians can get away with not having them. Candidates are avoiding debates because their political handlers and strategists are telling them to avoid the format. They see the debate as a very uncontrolled environment compared to carefully managed public appearances, television and radio advertising, and direct mail.”

From my experience, Tobocman is correct. Message control is key to most candidates and a debate is a risky undertaking.

There are many reasons a candidate avoids debates; here are some:

  • I am way ahead. Why should I give my opponent exposure?
  • I have enough money to control the message and do not want the risk of an unscripted blunder.
  • The proposed moderators are clearly in the tank for the other party and I will not get a fair shake. Plus, they will try to make the debate about something I don't want talk about -- gun control, contraception, immigration – and not jobs and taxes. And the so-called "nonpartisan" group that wants to sponsor the debate is really a front group for (pick one: the unions or the Koch Brothers).
  • I have a face for radio.
  • We have fundamental differences on format. She wants a town hall so she can show off. I want a reasoned discussion of the issues with a moderator-led panel of knowledgeable reporters.
  • My opponent is a liar and dissembler. I am a straightforward, honest, American all around good guy. My opponent will not enlighten the public but will further coarsen our political system and encourage the worst in human nature. I could go on.

Debates are a giant time suck and I have a fully committed schedule to meet with my base supporters and turn them out in the election. I just don't have the time to indulge the media's desires.

One perennial proposal to encourage candidates to debate is a Michigan Debate Commission as a few other states have done. Since 1987 there has been a Presidential Debate Commission to organize debates independent of the campaigns. The Commission has gained such prestige within the national electoral process that candidates are unable to avoid participation. The Indiana Debate Commission web site claims: “Fact: No candidate has declined.”

The Detroit Free Press quotes John Truscott, a Republican strategist: “A debate commission is worth exploring but it’s very difficult in a highly charged political environment to find folks that both sides will trust. And that trust factor is crucial to actually getting debates and debate rules on the table.”

If people are serious about having debates in 2016, now is the time to try and build a consensus.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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John Q. Public
Fri, 11/14/2014 - 7:46pm
Turn the page, already. After disqualifying members of the media, politicians, and those who earn their living sucking up to them or off of them, you can't find a hundred people who give two hoots about "debates." They're charades where the audience is predetermined, the questions are softballs and the answers are one of two things: non-responsive, or a lie. Candidates not from the Democratic and Republican parties are "duly excluded." It's absolutely irrefutable that candidates want to control the message,and the media are complicit in allowing them to do so. Thus, any debate that major-party candidates agree to, hosted and moderated by those who are easily manipulated,is inherently suspect. Debate advocates are simply seeking relevance in an arena where there's none to be had. The public does not care. More than half of them can't be bothered to cast a ballot. We'd be far better off controlling the processes the elected have to follow AFTER being elected than the ones that lead up to it. One good change would be outlawing lame-duck sessions by having mandatory recess between Election Day and the taking of office. Another would be to get rid of the legislature's ability to make laws referendum-proof by attaching some token appropriation to it. Still another would be to make amendment or repeal of a statute that is the object of a voter initiative subservient to the initiative.No more "repeal and replace" to circumvent the citizens. Debate away, pre-election, over irrelevant topics to your heart's content. Just stop screwing us with things like "skunk works" and "Bolgergate" after the vote is counted.
Connie Glave
Sun, 11/16/2014 - 9:12am
When you already have safe seats, you don't have to do debates where you actually have to answer tough questions, you can stick with voters who already agree with you. Our candidates showed up for debates, but often the Republicans backed out even after agreeing to debate.
Mon, 11/17/2014 - 11:28am
for debates to mean a damn you must assume critical thinking skills on the part of the audience and electorate. This has been dropped from school curriculum long ago. I think voters get more information from and about candidates being interviewed by a varied panel of interrogators than they get from debates anyway. (Assuming they watch??)
Fri, 11/21/2014 - 5:21pm
Black Mac forgot to mention being a good debater has nothing to do with good government.