Monday, July 14, 2014

To Debate Or Not To Debate: Foley’s Folly

Do debates determine elections?

On occasion, they do. Those defending the proposition that debates are determinative point to the Nixon-Kennedy contest of 1960. And of course the Lincoln-Douglas debates still are held up in the history books as demonstrating the political utility of vigorous debates.

It is sometimes forgotten by those who urge the importance of debates that Stephen Douglas, not Abraham Lincoln, emerged the victor in their Senate contest. The Lincoln-Douglas debates later were assembled into a book by Lincoln. Widely distributed, the book helped him to win the presidential election of 1860. The format of the Lincoln-Douglas debates – a 60 minute opening statement from the first candidate, followed by an alternative 90 minute statement from the second candidate, followed by a 30 minute rejoinder  from the first candidate  -- became, with some adjustments, the template for most future political debates. The Lincoln-Douglas debates were moderated by Lincoln and Douglas, not the Howard K. Smiths of the pre-Civil War period.

Then too, there are those, the authoritative editors New York Times among them who, following recent studies, have concluded that “on sound points of argument” Nixon, not Kennedy, won the Nixon-Kennedy debates, though Kennedy undoubtedly was the more telegenic of the two presidential candidates. Nixon wore no makeup, was at the time suffering from the flu, had lost weight and was hobbled by a bad knee. Nixon’s dark jowls and his past history as an aggressive communist battler probably did more to shift media and public approval in Kennedy’s favor than any gaffes make by either of the presidential candidates in any of their four public debates.

Lincoln -- unusually tall at six foot four inches, gangling, with a high register voice – was well aware that his optics were not favorable. When, during one of his speeches, a heckler in the audience shouted out that Lincoln was “two-faced,” Lincoln shot back, “If I had two faces, do you think I’d be wearing this one?”

There will be no Lincoln or Douglas in any of Connecticut’s gubernatorial debates, and none of the candidates – Governor Dannel Malloy on the Democratic side, State Senator John McKinney and former ambassador to Ireland Tom Foley on the Republican side, as well as independent candidates Jonathan Pelto and Joe Visconti  – brutalize the eye.

The question whether there will be a sufficient number of debates has itself become a not inconsiderable part of the gubernatorial debate season. Republican front runner Foley has been coy about debating.  Mr. Foley has pocketed the Republican Party nomination for governor and leads all other opposition candidates in recent polling. He can well afford to dodge debates with lesser candidates and wait until they withdraw from the field either from a lack of money to wage a convincing campaign or from low poll numbers that eventually drive competitors from the race. The Republican Party primary falls on August 12th, after which remaining Republican Party candidates can be safely tagged as “spoilers.” Independent party candidates will escape the invidious labeling.

The avoidance of debates is both smart and stupid. And, be it noted, it is smart and stupid for the same reason: In the absence of debates, a candidate need not commit to specific policy proposals. The Democratic Party incumbent governor, Mr. Malloy, already has laid many of his cards on the table. His program for the future is what he has done and failed to do during his first term as governor. Mr. Malloy is a progressive on most social and economic issues of the day; indeed, he is the most progressive governor in living memory, but not, Mr. Pelto often reminds us, progressive enough on education and union matters. Mr. Malloy has not entirely surrendered the operations of state government to powerful union interests – not yet anyway.

A non-committal campaign on the Republican side is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, the non-committal Republican candidate may non-committally slide through the primary season without having inflicted permanent injury upon himself or other Republican gubernatorial contestants. The two Republican candidates for governor, Mr. Foley and Mr. McKinney, appear to have taken to heart former Republican President Ronald Reagan’s commandment:  Love the Republican Party with thine whole heart, mind and spirit, and love thine Republican Party neighbor as thyself.

But a non-committal campaign – or, worse, a Republican campaigner who does not register on the public consciousness in primaries or general elections as distinctly different than a Democratic Party campaigner – leaves any Republican Party gubernatorial victor without a mandate to govern. And a Republican Party governor who slides into office unbruised in both a primary and general election contest will, while in office, be torn to pieces by the permanent opposition. The non-committing candidate, in other words, is the candidate whose gubernatorial term in office will be thrown on the sacrificial alter – along with what is left of a once vibrant state now up to its ears in rubble. Without a clear mandate from the people, minority Republicans cannot govern; they will become, as they have been in the past, the playthings of a superior force majeure, as the French might say.

The French also have another saying that ought to rest uneasily on the top of the minds of all Republican candidates this year:  "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose" (the more things change, the more they remain the same). If things in Connecticut remain the same for even a few more years, beneficial change will have been sacrificed to political expediency. And without courageous commitment, there can be no beneficial change.

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