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Why political debates still matter

Why political debates still matter
California gubernatorial candidates John Cox, left, and Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom shake hands before the debate begins inside Royce Hall at UCLA on January 25. (Los Angeles Times)

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the front-runner in California’s gubernatorial race, has agreed to just one debate leading up to the November election and doesn’t intend to do any more. His rival, GOP businessman John Cox, is hoping to debate Newsom at least five times, up and down the state.

This disparity is not uncommon. Typically, candidates trailing in the polls have more to gain by sparring with the leading candidate than the other way around, just as challengers need the exposure more than incumbents. Cox has never run for public office in California; Newsom is well known from his days as a high-profile mayor of San Francisco.

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But voters have a lot to gain too. In the era of multimillion-dollar campaigns and slick political messaging, nothing beats the potential of old-school debates to reveal and humanize the men and women behind the glossy ads and focus-group-approved slogans.

Nothing beats the potential of old-school debates to reveal and humanize the men and women behind the glossy ads and focus-group-approved slogans.


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Admittedly, debates can often seem like well-rehearsed exercises in reciting talking points and staying on message. Still, it can be tremendously informative when two candidates vying for the same important job stand (or sit) next to each other in front of an audience to answer questions, describe their policy differences and, well, debate. Unscripted forums offer a rare glimpse into candidates’ foundational character traits and temperament. They can also indicate how well a person might handle the unexpected challenges that arise once he or she is in office. Candidate Donald Trump’s bullying, blustering and bluffing during his debates turned out to be an accurate representation of the president he would become.

While there’s no universally accepted “right” number of debates for political races, it does seem that this year’s gubernatorial campaign in particular would benefit from more than one. California is a big state, and being its governor is a big job.

Newsom’s campaign says that the Democrat participated in nine debates leading up to the June primary and is now focusing on public forums where he can have deeper policy discussions than the typical debate format will allow. That’s fine, but controlled speaking engagements are no substitute for a good rough-and-tumble debate.

Besides, why not? If the polls are any indication, unless the top of his head pops off and a lizard-like alien from the planet Draco jumps out, Newsom will be the next governor of California.

Newsom isn’t the only front-running candidate in this year’s election who seems averse to debating. Although U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said after the primary she would debate her challenger, state Sen. Kevin de León, she has yet to commit to one.

Feinstein’s campaign cites scheduling conflicts, complicated by the Senate’s shortened August recess and the upcoming confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. That excuse rings hollow. Somehow other incumbent senators are finding the time to debate. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) met for the first debate with his Republican challenger on July 21. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) proposed five debates with his Democratic challenger.

In this case, a debate may well be in the incumbent’s best interest. The state Democratic Party’s endorsement of De León earlier this month may have left voters wondering if party leaders know something they don’t about the candidates. Much has been made (unfairly so) of Feinstein’s age, and refusing to face her younger rival may sow concern that the senator is not on top of her game. We believe Feinstein is still very much a political and policy force, and a debate would demonstrate as much.

Granted, there are risks in debating. A candidate’s carefully crafted message may go off the rails during an unscripted moment. The main takeaway may be an off-the-cuff remark (Ronald Reagan’s “There you go again”) or physical tic (vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s debate winks) rather than policy points. Or a debate performance can turn into a joke, as happened to Rick Perry. During a GOP presidential primary debate in 2011, the former Texas governor forgot the name of one of the three agencies he wanted to abolish, and concluded with a sheepish “oops.” That single word dogged him through the rest of his failed campaign.

That’s just too bad. Those seeking higher office or reelection have a responsibility to show the public they are up to the challenge of the coming years. That means showing up to debate even if they can’t predict the outcome.

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