The need for debates

Debate-ducking seems to be the sport of the season here in New York, but it’s not a very sporting way to conduct a political campaign.

We were disappointed that our incumbent congresswoman, Republican Elise Stefanik, did not agree to attend a debate before a live audience or a public forum with her opponents — Democrat Tedra Cobb and Green Party candidate Lynn Kahn. But she did agree to three in-studio television debates, which is a lot better than other incumbents and favorites have done.

Candidates have an obligation to engage in free and fair public debates, even if they are incumbents and even if they are favorites to win.

Republican incumbent Assemblywoman Betty Little of Queensbury, for example, avoided a debate with her Democratic challenger, Emily Martz of Saranac Lake, for so long that the League of Women Voters gave up on it.

Other incumbents, such as Gov. Andrew Cuomo and U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, both Democrats, have been shamed into making token appearances at a single, late debate. Gillibrand’s will be all of half an hour long.

You may never have heard of these candidates’ opponents — Republicans Marc Molinaro for governor and Chele Farley for U.S. Senate — or if you’ve heard of them, you probably don’t know much about them, and that is the point.

Their name recognition is low, and their chances of winning are slim, and these circumstances constrain their ability to raise money. A public, televised debate offers them a rare chance to state their case and inform the public without having to spend a lot of money.

The problem here is an inability to see the big picture, or to put it less charitably, a willingness to put personal political advantage above the public interest. Incumbents avoid the free and open exchange of views that informs voters and bolsters our democracy for one selfish reason — they believe they will win anyway.

In the attorney general’s race, neither candidate is an incumbent, but Democrat Letitia James, the favorite, is still talking about ducking a debate with Republican Keith Wofford. Many voters — especially upstate voters — have never heard of either candidate, so you would think a debate would be imperative. But the cold political calculus for James is that, because New York has more registered Democrats, she will win a battle of unknowns.

Democracy depends upon an informed electorate, and to have that, political candidates must campaign with a measure of good faith. They must sometimes agree to take part in events, such as public debates, that serve the public good, even if those events won’t necessarily help their campaigns.

In sport, athletes and teams want to play the best, because they want to prove they are the best. In politics, to the great misfortune of the citizens and the country, all notions of fair play have been sacrificed to the god of victory. Winning has become the only thing, and that makes losers of us all.

The Post Star

Oct. 25

By Josh Bovee

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