• Marc Johnson

Debating Debates


In many past elections, incumbents have often deemed it in their best interest to sit on their lead, while going into the political equivalent of Coach Dean Smith’s four corner basketball slowdown offense. Coach Smith, the great North Carolina legend, wanted to control the game knowing that the opponent can’t score without the ball. This year in Idaho things look different. Otter and Allred seem ready to run the floor.

Allred seemed to generate the most headlines in the first encounter with his charge that Otter is a “career politician,” while Otter defended his handling of education budgets and quipped that the Democrat was the “first college professor” he’d ever run against. Otter zinged Allred for talking about a top-to-bottom review of the state’s myriad tax exemptions without offering specifics.

Long-time political observer Randy Stapilus pointed out that both candidates know their Constitutional history and “tossed in so many references to the ‘founding fathers’ that you began to wonder if either of them really understands that the year is 2010, not 1790. But then, this (was) an Idaho Falls audience.”

There will be more debates and that is all too the good.

I think there may be just a handful of debates in recent Idaho political history that had any real impact on an election. The two Frank Church – Steve Symms debates in 1980 may not have been decisive in that historic race, but I believe they helped Symms, a glib conservative with a reputation for the controversial, off-the-cuff remark, establish that he could hold his own with the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who was one of the Senate’s best debaters and an eloquent speaker.

As I recall those encounters, and I moderated both of them, Symms was on the attack at every turn and Church, a four-term incumbent, was generally on the defensive and not just from Symms’ charges, but also from a massive national effort engineered by a conservative political action committee. The media coverage of those debates – usually the source of the greatest political consequence – tended to call the encounters a draw, but in many ways that equalled a win for the challenger Symms.

In 1986, the debates featuring Symms and then-Governor John Evans, who was challenging for the Senate seat, and Lt. Gov. David Leroy and then-former Gov. Cecil Andrus, who were seeking the governorship, were spirited and important.

Beyond those encounters, its hard to recall an Idaho debate that made much impact, which is not to say that they aren’t important – very important – to the democratic process.

Here’s a suggestion. Idaho needs a more formalized, standardized approach to political debates. The model is the Commission on Presidential Debates, the group that organizes the now standard debates featuring the Republican and Democratic candidates. The Commission determines the location for the face-offs and generally manages the logistics. At various times in Idaho, the Press Club, the League of Women Voters, Idaho Public Television and individual news organizations have organized – or tried to organize – debates. This week’s debate in eastern Idaho was organized by the Idaho Falls City Club and the format – clean, straightforward, presided over by a single moderator – seemed very well done.

Unlike Thursday’s Otter-Allred encounter in Idaho Falls, Idaho debates are typically held in Boise. But debates should be held around the state and public TV (and anyone else who wants to) should broadcast them.

The regional piece is really important. It’s hard to believe a gubernatorial debate anywhere other than eastern Idaho would have generated a question about the Areva uranium enrichment project near Idaho Falls. A debate in Lewiston this cycle would ensure that questions would be asked about the controversial plan to haul massive oil field equipment up Highway 12. Idaho is a state of regions and having the debate spread around would be good for the state, the candidates and regional issues.

So, how about an Idaho Commission on Gubernatorial Debates? Each major political party could appoint a representative to the Commission and they in turn could agree on a third member. The Commission could seek proposals from various cities or organizations, like the City Clubs in Idaho Falls and Boise, to sponsor debates and then conduct the negotiations about formats and other details with the various camps. The Commission could select the moderators and spend the time and effort needed to determine eligibility for third-party or independent candidates, most of whom never mount a serious campaign and should not get in the middle of a discussion between those who will win elections.

A Commission would have the added benefit of keeping the members of the Fourth Estate, the press, out of the debate organizing and sponsoring role. News organizations should cover debates, not determine formats and who participates. Media organizations have often found it impossible to say “no” to debate participation by fringe candidates and some of the formats for past television debates in Idaho, apparently in an effort to make the debate move faster or seem more interesting, have been so prescriptive with time limits and “lightening rounds” as to seem more like game shows than serious discussions of serious issues.

In past Idaho elections candidates have also, from time-to-time, played various media organizations against one another in order to position for maximum benefit to their own campaigns. Nothing really wrong from with that from the standpoint of political strategy except that it tends to make the negotiations difficult and prolonged. There have been occasions when debates sponsored by news organizations actually end up limiting coverage rather than enhancing it. A Commission would do away with this type of gamesmanship.

One final observation. Having seen debates from all sides as a moderator, organizer and aide to a candidate, I’ve come to understand that generally speaking campaigns and candidates hate the idea of debates. At best, they often consider a debate a necessary evil. They know they will catch flack of they dodge debating, but most candidates – the underdog being the notable exception – would rather make a trip to the dentist. Debates take time to prepare for, they can be high risk and low reward events and there is always the chance for the game changing gaffe or stumble.

All the more reason to standardize the events, raise the bar on expectations for gubernatorial debates and make these every four year political events a truly institutionalized part of Idaho campaigns.

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©2021 by Marc C Johnson