Punts, passes and political debates
Nebraska Republican gubernatorial candidate Jim Pillen answers questions after being endorsed by the Nebraska Cattlemen in Lincoln. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)
The debate over Nebraska gubernatorial debates continues. In the scheme of all things political, that may be down the list of importance, what with election deniers running for office, threats of violence against the FBI for doing its job and a continued sundry of silliness and lies passed on as political information.
Nevertheless, debating season has arrived. Nebraskans traditionally show up for these side-by-side sessions to size up candidates — the main event being the race for the state’s corner office when it’s on the ballot.
Not this time, however. Jim Pillen, the Republican candidate, refuses to debate his opponent, Democrat Carol Blood.
Pillen’s decision to pass has been met with some criticism: from wondering what he has to lose to questioning his political courage. Others have no problem with him skipping the stage, insisting that as the front-runner with a clear financial advantage, he has nothing to gain by participating.
As someone who has been both a moderator and questioner in political debates for local, state and federal offices, I understand the limits of debates: timed answers, the quality of questions and the potential for a descent into a shouting match.
That said, debates give voters a chance to assess candidates not only on the content of their answers, but also the agility and nimbleness of their minds in defending their responses or answering follow-up or pointed questions. A candidate’s demeanor on the debate stage can be revelatory. As can the choice to simply not show up.
Pillen’s campaign offered a number of reasons for avoiding debates, which he also did during the GOP primary.
“Any gubernatorial debate would only be political theater pushed by left-leaning media looking to prop up the Democrat candidate’s sad campaign.” Aside from the snarky diss of Blood’s efforts and the standard GOP grammatical misuse of Democrat as an adjective, the Pillen camp also insisted he has been “the most accessible gubernatorial candidate in Nebraska’s history,” adding he “is a livestock producer, not a politician.”
Lots to unpack there.
For starters, if you don’t want to debate, don’t. Go ahead, you do you. Campaign. Shake hands. Kiss babies. Hold rallies. Press the flesh. Send out press releases. Perfect the stump speech. Look for endorsements. Have an old-fashioned whistle stop tour if you want. Whatever. Don’t debate if you don’t want to.
Just do us a favor: Skip parading a litany of bogeymen past us to justify your decision.
For starters, if you seek to hold a political office, you’re a politician. Our knee-jerk reaction to the word “politician” is often negative. But politics at its core — unless big money realigns its priorities or egos erode its principles — is the art and science of persuasion. You have a better idea than your opponent and here is the evidence to prove it. If you are credible, convincing and conversant enough to win the vote, then you are given the power to shape public policy.
For some time, a portion of the electorate has clamored for government to be run like a business, rallying around those from the bottom-line world who run for elected office. While that may sound impressive or efficient or important, this just in: Government and business are two different animals, one owing its allegiance to profit, the other to the will of the people. Using some business principles can help, but confusing the two rarely goes unpunished.
I’m not sure what political theater is, but if it refers to human interaction that creates differences of opinion, then a debate is indeed theater … and a healthy democracy. The problem with that is?
Tiring, too, is using the “left leaning” media as an excuse, in this case, to pass on a debate. If Pillen is concerned the media will color his responses, then he should take the stage and let those Nebraskans watching decide for themselves. Moreover, should Nebraskans choose Pillen to be their next governor, who does he think will be his conduit to informing them? Getting accurate information to the public — who needs to know the truth — is a shared responsibility, enhanced by a good working relationship between government and the media.
Finally, how one compares gubernatorial candidates’ accessibility for the last 155 years is beyond my research and math skills. I do know this, however: Unless Pillen changes his mind — here’s hoping he will — his punting on debates will deprive voters of the opportunity to size up Blood next to her opponent, too.
On that, there is no debate.
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