Staff Columnist

A debatable call for better debates

Republican incumbent Rep. Rod Blum does a microphone check with KCRG-TV9 news director before his debate for the First Congressional District with Democratic candidate Monica Vernon at Sinclair Auditorium at Coe College in northeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016.  (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Republican incumbent Rep. Rod Blum does a microphone check with KCRG-TV9 news director before his debate for the First Congressional District with Democratic candidate Monica Vernon at Sinclair Auditorium at Coe College in northeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

So Republican U.S. Rep. Rod Blum says he wants a dozen debates with his Democratic challenger, state Rep. Abby Finkenauer.

I certainly appreciate the congressman’s sentiment, or is it strategy? This is, after all, a guy who hasn’t fielded questions in an open, public setting for more than a year. Now he’s ordering up public forums like doughnuts.

Fair enough. But, honestly, we don’t need 12 debates. Just three good ones would do.

The first would be, at a minimum, a two-hour town hall where all questions come from voters in the audience. And yes, I do think such an event can be civil, orderly and informative. I still tend to be hopelessly naive when it comes to we the people, perfect unions, etc.

The second would be a wide open exchange between the candidates, without a net, format or clock. A moderator/referee could curtail filibusters, toss out a topic and keep things moving. But, otherwise, it’s the candidates who have the floor. The whole floor.

The third would allow journalists a chance to ask questions, with a loose, flexible format that permits ample room for follow-ups and more follow ups.

Each of these formats seeks to address three big problems I’ve seen with the many, many, oh so many debates I’ve watched and covered — namely frustrated voters who don’t get their questions asked, candidates who don’t interact enough with each other, aka, actually debate, and journalists wedged into dry formats and tight time constraints who don’t get to press candidates dodging their questions.

None of these debates would feature opening or closing statements, which rarely add anything substantive. Short bio intros would do. None would pose a complicated question and expect a two-minute answer. I’d hold them on weekend afternoons so as more people can attend. With extra digital TV channels and online streaming, there’s no need for condensed, rushed formats. Watch anytime, as much as you want.

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“I think it’s a good thing for constituents to hear from both candidates on the issues versus trying to make the decision on who to vote for based on $5 million of attack ads paid for by out-of-state special interest groups,” Blum told The Gazette. I agree.

But, sadly, none of this is likely to happen. That’s OK. I didn’t want to be the Almighty Debate Dictator anyway. As far as you know.

At this point, I’ll settle for just keeping debates alive.

Because if you ask some political operatives or consultants, debates are a waste of time and resources. Persuasion is dead. Issues are passe. Organization is king. Why waste time preparing for and participating in debates that could be better spent whipping up core supporters and getting out the vote. The election will be won on the phones, in mailboxes and at the doors, not prattling away on some debate stage.

And if polling shows you’re ahead, what’s the point of taking the risk while giving your opponent an opening and a megaphone?

But in the 1st District, it’s worth noting there are a slug of independent voters who ultimately will determine the outcome. Sure, some already lean strongly left or right, but some still might actually be swayed by what the candidates say and do, including how they perform in debates.

There’s also the small matter of Americans getting a chance to see and hear their elected and would-be elected representatives appear in public and address important issues. It may be old fashioned, but some Iowans might like to know these politicians are living, breathing full-color humans, not just grainy dark images in 30-second ads.

And, as noted, Blum has been downright allergic to public questioning since he did a string of spring town halls in 2017. He got verbally roughed up by crowds of outraged constituents and has retreated to a schedule of mainly private meetings with far friendlier groups. He clearly dislikes public criticism, to the point of comparing news coverage of his entanglements with a shady online company, Tin Moon, to an “assassination attempt.” Mailers and telephonic “town halls,” it seems, are much safer.

Lord knows I understand how angry our politics is right now, but Blum really needs to get out more. Debates will give him that chance.

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As for Finkenauer, the two-term state representative from Dubuque likely remains a largely unknown quantity to a lot of voters beyond the engaged Democrats who support her. She’s run a series of introductory TV ads on her blue collar roots, but there are a lot of details yet to be filled in.

If the dreaded “youth and inexperience” is dampening enthusiasm for her challenge among persuadables, debates will give her a chance to show a command of the issues and an ability to face questioning. She can also explain how she’d represent the district differently.

So here’s to hoping the campaigns can come to swift agreement on some debates, likely landing somewhere south of 12, north of none. And if they get stuck, I happen to know an Almighty Debate Dictator who may be available.

l Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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