Fight over debates is part of a troubling political trend

Sen. Chuck Grassley responds to a question during a town hall meeting at the Jones County Courthouse in Anamosa on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Sen. Chuck Grassley responds to a question during a town hall meeting at the Jones County Courthouse in Anamosa on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

We’re tired of the all the finger-pointing, strategizing and mudslinging over debates.

It seems pretty simple. Candidates for public office should appear in public with their opponents and answer questions about issues of the day and the campaigns they’ve waged. These forums should be presented in such a way that every voter with a stake in the race has access. In a local race, that means showing up for local forums. In high-stakes congressional and statewide contests, that means debating on television, multiple times, reaching all voters. No “smart,” cynical, cautious political strategy should override the public’s need to view its would-be leaders engaged in these public exchanges.

And yet, here we are, just weeks before the Nov. 8 election, watching candidates for office at all levels ducking, dodging and spinning.

Last week, Republican U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley backed out of a planned debate with his Democratic challenger, Patty Judge, on statewide Iowa Public Television. Instead, Grassley accepted a televised forum originating in Sioux City that will not be aired in two of the state’s largest media markets. His campaign’s explanations for the change have been far too vague to be credible.

In the 1st Congressional District, U.S. Rep. Rod Blum had called for 10 debates before, at last report, reducing his request to six. His Democratic challenger, Monica Vernon, insists on two forums. And as of this week, the campaigns have agreed to a grand total of zero debates.

Locally, where the League of Women Voters does the hard work of organizing local legislative campaign forums, candidates in three key races have declined to participate. That includes Republican Rene Gadelha in Senate District 34, Democrat Molly Donahue in House District 68 and Republican Louis Zumbach in House District 95.

We understand other commitments can get in the way for local candidates. But we also understand in a legislative campaign defined so far by shady mailers and largely substance-free ads, this was the lone chance for voters in those districts to hear actual candidates address issues.

This all fits into a disturbing trend, with candidates at all levels ducking public forums and broad audiences in favor of private events, controlled settings and poll-driven strategies meant to save candidates from potential gaffes at the expense of public engagement. To that trend, we have a simple answer. Stand before the public or don’t run for public office.

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