Let’s face it, it’s tough being public television and competing for eyeballs with the likes of “The Voice” and “The Big Bang Theory.”
But on Wednesday, Idaho Public Television allowed two fringe candidates to join Gov. Butch Otter and Republican Sen. Russell M. Fulcher to debate their visions for the future of Idaho and to push their credentials for the top executive spot.
As might be expected, the voices from the fringe were far more entertaining than the mainstream Republicans. All are running in the May 20 primary.
Away from the madding crowd of supporters were Walt Bayes, a frequent candidate who runs “to stop abortion”; and Harley Brown, a biker who showed up wearing his leathers and other biker gear and keeps a list of campaign slogans like “Register Communists, not firearms.” Brown introduced himself by saying that at the low point of his life he was called by God to be commander in chief, following that revelation with: “Don’t think I’m crazy, because I’m not.”
“You might find this offensive, but I hit everybody — Jews, Polish people, Irish, Italians, religious jokes and black jokes,” Brown said Wednesday night, responding to a question about bigoted jokes posted to his website. “I don’t like political correctness.... It’s bondage.”
Bayes spent time criticizing the federal government as “a bunch of Eastern idiots” and boasting about killing a wolf that was classified as an endangered species at the time. He also promised to prohibit abortion, saying that “if the Supreme Court goes to hell, I’m not following them.”
Bayes also thanked Otter for making sure that Bayes and Brown were included in the televised debate. If that sounds like it should immediately disqualify Otter, who has been governor since 2007, then you don’t understand politics and the fine art of debating.
The Lincoln-Douglas debates are often held up as the model of sane political discourse, but records and accounts from the time paint a far livelier picture. The two scrapped for hours, no holds barred, as the audience, many sitting and eating picnic lunches, enjoyed the entertainment as much, or more, than the underlying political philosophy. But by the end of the 20th century, presidential debates were programmed sound bites and the occasional (usually previously written) jab. Debates for lesser offices were mainly dull at best and ignored at worst.
For incumbents, the best debate tactic can mean avoiding a one-on-one confrontation with the principal opponent. Why give someone who can hurt you a unique platform? In Idaho, that meant the governor wanted the extra voices, however, shrill they might be.
Otter told Idaho Public Television officials that unless the others were allowed to debate, he wouldn’t participate. Fulcher issued a statement Thursday evening, saying that Idaho residents deserve better and that Otter set up the state for ridicule.
The punch line will be when the voters go to the polls.