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Missing in Inaction

Through nine months of preparation the League of Women Voters of California has laid the groundwork for campaign debates between the candidates for governor and U.S. senator from California in the Nov. 4 general election. There is only one thing missing: the candidates.

The situation is lamentable. Not that debates are the solution to voter apathy, or that they necessarily point the way toward the most intelligent ballot choices. Or even that they highlight the personal qualities in candidates that might best qualify them for office.

But consider the sort of campaigns that we have these days--particularly in a state like California, with millions of registered voters. About the only personal exposure that most of the electorate gets to the candidate is a highly controlled appearance on a seconds-long television ad. Sometimes the candidate himself does not even appear.

The debate is just one of many devices through which a candidate becomes known to the people. But it can be a valuable one. While the formats often have been stilted and frustrating, the debate caldron is one in which the candidate must relate spontaneously to the viewer, demonstrate his or her ability to articulate the issues, and exhibit some knowledge about the office. A candidate can duck or filibuster a tough question. But most viewers are smart enough to know what is going on.

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The debate has become a popular staple of California politics in the past decade. A California Poll conducted this summer indicated that nearly 50% of those queried would be less favorably inclined toward a candidate who refused to debate.

So why is there no debate so far either in the gubernatorial or in the Senate contest?

In the campaign between Gov. George Deukmejian and Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, the Republican governor’s Democratic challenger, the Deukmejian campaign has clung to the flimsy claim that there is no point in debating so long as there is a chance that Bradley will attack the governor’s “character and integrity.” The League of Women Voters has proposed a single hour-long debate between the two. Larry Thomas, the Deukmejian campaign director, says that a debate would serve no public purpose. Come on, Mr. Thomas, let’s get serious.

In the Senate race, Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston has expressed through a campaign aide his eagerness to debate his Republican challenger, Rep. Ed Zschau. But the Cranston campaign is insisting on a single hour-long forum that also includes the three minor-party candidates for the Senate. The league has proposed three meetings: one with all five candidates and two sessions between Cranston and Zschau--one on foreign affairs and one on domestic issues. Clearly, as the incumbent and front-runner in the polls, Cranston does not want to give so much on-the-air exposure to his lesser-known opponent. The Cranston proposal would limit each participant to less than 10 minutes of air time--not enough to learn anything of substance about anyone.

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The campaign organizations may have their own strategic political reasons for refusing to debate except on their own chosen terms. That is their right. But they also bear some responsibility for making the candidates available and responsive to the electorate. The league should keep after them to debate. If they continue to refuse and no debates are held, the voters deserve to know why not.


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