Debate

Are Political Debates Dying?

In Ohio, it's a real question. Late Friday afternoon, representatives for three incumbent campaigns in statewide offices in Ohio sent emails declining invitations to public debates at one of the nation's century-old free speech forums. Those emails from the campaigns of Attorney General Mike DeWine (R), Secretary of State Jon Husted (R), and Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel (R) arrived within twenty minutes of one another. Several weeks prior, the campaign of 11th Congressional District Representative Marcia Fudge (D) sent a similar email, saying she is not available for a public debate.

While this strategy may serve these campaigns well, voters of every party are being taken for granted, and, ultimately, democracy suffers.

At this point, the only public debate for any statewide office is the one for Ohio Auditor, scheduled for Monday, September 15, at the City Club of Cleveland (which is where I work and where the above invitations were issued).

Given the dynamics in Ohio politics, this isn't all that surprising. The Democrats have seen the implosion of the campaign of their gubernatorial hopeful. Pundits have said this may bring down Dems down the ballot, and while that may be true, none of us can doubt that dynamic has taken the wind out of every other race. If you're not aware of the electoral calendar, you could be forgiven for not knowing an election is on the way. There are few ads on the air and few campaign events generating news coverage.

The campaigns that aren't participating haven't explained their decisions, which makes those decisions appear extremely cynical, as if they are simply sidestepping the civil society organizations and engaged citizens that are part of what makes democracy function well.

Perhaps it's naive to think those hoping to win or retain public office would do so out of a desire to serve the public and even be in dialogue with that public. In the City of Cleveland mayoral debate we hosted last year, one candidate quipped, "You can't serve those you disdain." It's hard not to wonder if the unwillingness to engage belies an antipathy some officeholders may have for the public they serve. These Republican and Democratic office holders cement the impression that they have no sincere interest in two-way exchanges, no desire to be in a situation where they might be challenged or face controversy that they did not initiate.

Or perhaps these decisions are driven by self-preservation. The City Club has a long-standing commitment to free speech and has long had a tradition of allowing audience members to pose unscripted questions to candidates. That's not a scenario in which all candidates are successful. Nor is it an absolute requirement, but no campaign asked that we change that element of the format.

Still, isn't that precisely the thing that a representative democracy requires? And isn't this sort of exchange even more necessary today, when confidence in government is waning?

Ultimately, and perhaps most simply and significantly, declining to debate, especially when it's an incumbent who is declining, continues the erosion of trust between the people being served and the person in the elected office. It is a sign of disregard for democracy, and the voters who pay their salaries and finance their campaigns.

If this sort of behavior bothers you, talk to your elected officials and candidates about it. Better yet, run for office and make a personal commitment to debate your opponents and not to hire political strategists who would have you do otherwise.

If this sort of behavior doesn't bother you, if you applaud it, then write a check for your favorite incumbent doing an end run around the electorate. And let me know if the check you write buys you any influence or any sense of accountability or engagement.

Blogger and former elected office holder Jill Miller Zimon contributed editorial assistance. She is a former colleague of the author.

 

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