October 21, 2018

CHANG | The Death of the Campaign Debate

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In American politics, the debate holds a unique place in the campaign season as the only forum where candidates go toe to toe in a battle of wits, words and policy positions. For the voters and the viewers, debates bring competition to election cycles filled with one-sided personal attacks. In 2018, though, no one cares about the debate anymore. Candidates have got to start showing up, and we’ve got to start paying attention.

In every presidential race in recent history, we’ve seen memorable and educational debates between fundamentally different candidates. In the 2016 general election, it was a female technocrat versus a cult of personality. In the 2012 general, it was a Mormon businessman versus the first black incumbent. In the 1960 election, it was a youthful and vibrant John F. Kennedy pitted against a washed-out and tired-looking Richard Nixon.

I could go on, but I think you get the point. Debates contrast candidates. And even more importantly, debates provide a chance for moderates and independents to gather in-depth opinions about a candidate in the homestretch of an election cycle.

What we see at the state and local debates this election is quite different, but no less important. In New York, candidates from both parties in a whole host of races are dodging debates. It’s not a good look. Although television channel NY1 invited all gubernatorial candidates for a televised debate, Democratic candidate Andrew Cuomo has consistently avoided a debate with Republican Marc Molinaro and other third-party candidates. Cuomo cited concerns about Charter Communications, the parent of NY1 — a company Gov. Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio are currently boycotting.

Fair enough. So why not televise the Cuomo-Molinaro debate on another channel? Or bring the debate to a college campus? The Cuomo campaign is simply obstructing the public’s ability to see two candidates go at it in person. That’s not exactly a surprise, but the decision does paint Gov. Cuomo as scared (New York Post has consistently called this move “chicken”) especially considering Cuomo’s massive fundraising and polling advantages. He has 43 times as much cash on hand as Molinaro, and leads by double digits in every poll. Yet, he won’t agree to a debate.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Attorney General candidate Letitia James are employing similar tactics, explaining their decision to avoid a televised debate as solidarity with workers striking against Charter Communications. Sen. Gillibrand has appeared on NY1 at least twice while the roughly 18 month labor dispute was ongoing, calling into question her motives for avoiding this specific appearance. Gillibrand holds a 28.5 point polling advantage over Republican candidate Chele Farley. Again, it’s not a good look.

Dodging is a serious problem, and so far it’s already been the favored tactic of many candidates, especially incumbents who believe they’ve already won their election. It’s not a tactic limited to New York. In Indiana, Democratic secretary of state candidate Jim Harper and Libertarian Mark Rutherford have challenged Republican incumbent Connie Lawson to a wide range of debate opportunities, going so far as to hold a candidate forum in Lawson’s hometown of Danville, Indiana. Secretary Lawson didn’t show up, and her refusal has only provided a messaging issue for her opponents.

For incumbents, voter access can only prove deadly. But, voters deserve to hear their candidates speak on a variety of issues. Voters deserve to see how candidates will duke it out in a public speaking exercise. Denying the tradition of election-season debate can only serve to weaken our democracy at the local level.

In other states, this cycle’s debates have so far been exciting but haven’t attracted too much press coverage. Senatorial races in Nevada, Indiana and Texas have all had televised and barb-filled bar fights, although the electorate has barely been paying attention. Each candidate has tried to smear the other as an extremist. The local press in each state has had a field day fact-checking each candidate’s spin.

Rep. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) and Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) were described as “[going] on the attack” during their debate in Nevada, with Rosen challenging Heller “to look into the eyes of a Nevada family and tell them why he had lied over his support for protections of pre-existing conditions.” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) called Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) an extreme liberal who wants to “tear down the ones [border walls] we have” while O’Rourke fired back by calling Cruz a liar. Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) and Mike Braun demonstrated the image of partisanship in their debate, with Donnelly quipping that Braun “[needs] to do more than take [his] tie off to gain the trust of the people of Indiana.”

These are the contentious moments voters need to see. Voter should have the opportunity to enjoy the hullaballoo of accessible and hilarious political standoffs. When candidates are invited to Ithaca, show up. We’ve had quite the list of politicos who’ve been invited to speak (remember Dick Cheney and Joe Biden?). We have a host of organizations who hold public forums; next time, bring your popcorn and watch fellow politically-minded students insult each other with barely-contained (and sometimes uncontained) fury and derision — maybe, we’ll slowly get our campaign debating back.

But, as long as candidates keep dodging and voters keep giving the impression that deliberative democracy shouldn’t be headline news, the tradition of campaign debating may be coming to an end.

Darren Chang is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. The Death of the Campaign Debate runs every other Monday this semester. He can be reached at dchang@cornellsun.com.