In our ever-changing world, a major political anachronism of our time is the candidate debate. Most often, incumbents don’t want ‘em; challengers can’t get enough. Unfortunately, knowledge gained from most is usually minimal.
There are several reasons for this. Given the power of incumbency, office holders normally have about an 80% re-election edge via campaign dollars and name recognition. In our current “throw-the-bastard’s-out” climate, that may fall a bit. Still, the guy inside starts with an advantage over the guy outside.
Then there’s the chance the incumbent … starting ahead … may stumble or commit some sort of public gaffe and lose some ground. The challenger can make a similar fatal mistake. Richard Nixon debating John Kennedy comes to mind. Jerry Ford, too.
There’s also the incumbent reluctance to give the opponent free advertising to become better known through debates. Unless, as in the case with John Kitzhaber, your opponent has a high profile from previous public life, an incumbent is almost always better known.
Oregon has a longtime congressional hired hand, Mr. DeFazio, who knows all that. Which is why opponent Art Robinson has an uphill battle to get on the same stage in the Southeast part of our state. Any stage. DeFazio normally loses in six of his district’s counties, making up the winning margin in heavily Democrat Lane County.
Another factor making at least televised debates less worth watching is the general media’s lack of understanding of both its role and of the workings of government. Debates are not time for “gotcha” questions. There are too many legitimate issues that need straight-up inquiries and responses. But if the questioner lacks an understanding of the political process, phony answers go unchallenged by someone who doesn’t know when he/she’s been “had.”
I’ve been on debate panels and sat through more than the average voter. As a political wonk, I keep a mental scorecard of not only content of answers but also quality. Same for questioners.
To be fair to media folks, most debate formats put them in an untenable position at the git-go. If follow-up questions aren’t allowed, debate participants can say anything that pops into his/her head and not be called on it. Happens all the time. The candidate “skates” and the voter is the loser.
I haven’t given up on debates; only how they’re conducted. If asked to organize one, I’d start by eliminating media. I’d opt for a strong, single questioner … unknown to either participant … who would know when to talk. And when not to.
The format would be head-to-head with questions and answers coming from the folks we’re there to see: candidates. We’ve currently got a national crop of challengers with some pretty far out ideas and more volume than reasoned thought. On many issues. So rules about sticking to subject matter and observing common courtesy would have to be unhesitatingly enforced. That’s why the strong, unfamiliar moderator.
Take DeFazio-Robinson. DeFazio likes to think of himself as an “independent” Democrat, whatever that is. Robinson takes positions to the right of Ivan the Terrible, many he couldn’t possibly get through any U.S. Congress. I don’t think the two of ‘em could agree on the time of day. Or whose clock to use. With minimal outside interference, you’d find a spirited “discussion” on many things. Might not get a lot of healthy mental red meat but you wouldn’t go away hungry and you’d know a lot more about the makeup of each man.
There’s another problem with debates. Too few people watch them or take time to attend the local venue. So, information from a spirited set-to doesn’t always get to the people who need to know because of apathy or ignorance. Or both.
I’ve heard many folks complain about the sorry state of politics these days. Plain fact is, what we have didn’t happen overnight. But it did happen without you. That’s a fact. Someone showed up at the polls. Someone voted for these people. If things aren’t being run the way you want, where were you when the contract was being signed? You may not like … or even care about … things political but we didn’t get here in a vacuum. We just got here while you were doing something else.
Nowhere in our Northwest neighborhood is there a clearer divide and thus a clearer choice between candidates of differing views than the DeFazio-Robinson contest.
They both need to stop posturing and “belly up to the bar.” And we all need to be there. Listening.