In this first of this series, the students considered the role of political debates in a campaign. Voicing these reports is there political science professor at Wesleyan, Dr. Robert Rupp.
Most candidates view televised debates the way Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes viewed the forward pass-as
an event that does not have good odds. Coach Hayes maintained that three things
can happen when you attempt a forward pass and two of them are bad. The pass
can be completed, dropped or intercepted.
Today Hayes observation about passing seems out outmoded, but the
candidates who shy away from debates have a point-a televised meeting with your
opponent on an equal setting has serious risks.
Dr. Marybeth Beller, professor of political science at Marshall University says candidates
have to take their chances.
“If the candidate
agrees to debate, he or she opens up the possibility of gaffs, of not
remembering numbers,” Dr. Beller explains.
“But also I would suggest, you know, in a debate you really can not plan
on what your opponent is going to say. And so if the opponent comes at you with
a real curveball, and you haven’t planned for that, it’s totally possible that
you’re going to look really silly and not know how to properly respond. Whereas
if you avoid the entire debate situation, you can plan your remarks and
[inaudible] a group to field your answers and you come out looking more
So candidates are advised by their managers to
avoid debates and speak only in an
environment they can control.
Dr. Beller says extemporaneous
speaking is a very difficult art and a televised debate carries risk. Just look at the first presidential debate of
2012 where President Obama, in front of a television audience of 67 million
“lost” the debate in terms of both image and substance.
Or recall the
criticism when President George W. Bush looked at his watch in a 1992 debate or
President Gerald Ford made that gaff in 1976 about Soviet domination of Poland.
That is why
conventional wisdom holds that if you
are ahead in the polls you don’t debate- sort of a campaign version of the four
corners defense practiced by University of North Carolina in the 20th
century until the shot clock was instituted and basketball stopped being
But should the
self-interest of the candidate pre-empt
the interest of the voter?
Ronald Reagan made
history in 1984-the first time a candidate in the lead consented to debate his
opponent. And when he lost the first debate, he became an instant poster boy
for worried campaign consultants. But look again- he went on to win 49 states
in November and set a precedent that every major presidential aspirant must participate in three presidential
Dr. Beller says
voters need to speak up and require candidates for statewide and federal
offices in West Virginia to have multiple debates.
“ Well, I suggest
something like that really has to come from voter demand,” says Dr. Beller. “In
the electorate, voicing, actively voicing concern and demand for debate. But
also perhaps punishing people who don’t agree to debate.”
president of the League of Women Voters agrees that candidates should not dodge
So here is a modest proposal for West Virginia. Starting in 2014 every major candidate for
governor or U.S. Senate agrees to participate in three one hour debates- one
held in each of the state’s Congressional district and supervised by a
non-partisan and neutral body. Other
states do that.
If such a proposal is seriously discussed, we can predict that candidate consultants will rush forward with explanations on why it cannot be
done- filling the air with justifications for inaction. But if they want our
vote, we should can’t we get 180 minutes
of their time.