Summer in a gubernatorial election year means it’s time to start the debate over the number of debates.
And it has, with a flourish. Republican nominee Ed Gillespie proposed a series of 10 debates with Democratic nominee Ralph Northam, a somewhat more modest demand than the 15 debates Republican Ken Cuccinelli demanded of Democrat Terry McAuliffe in 2013.
Gillespie called Northam’s counter-offer “insulting.”
Both candidates are correct. This is a public relations stunt, as Northam said, and a very old, tired one at that. It is also insulting, but not in the way Gillespie meant.
The insult is that gubernatorial debates in Virginia are little more than smaller versions of the carefully packaged affairs we’ve all witnessed at the national level.
What people watch for and what the press and political junkies delight in are those “gotcha” moments that make for great copy and easy attack lines.
But let’s indulge Gillespie on his demand for many debates and ignore his own ducking and dodging on the issue in the waning months of the Republican primary.
Let’s have 10 debates. Or 19, as the Roanoke Times has suggested.
But let’s also insist on a couple of things.
- That all the debates be televised and carried during prime-time viewing hours so that voters can watch and form their opinions in real time.
- That the debates – every single one of them – include the libertarian candidate, Cliff Hyra.
Libertarians had a good case for being included in the 2013 debates between Cuccinelli and McAuliffe. But their candidate, Robert Sarvis, had to settle for running an ad during one debate. He was excluded from another by a media outlet because he didn’t qualify “under debate rules worked out between the major-party candidates.”
Bipartisan agreement is easy to find, especially if it leads to keeping voters in the dark.
While Sarvis ended up winning just 6.5 percent of the vote, and Republicans still blame his campaign for costing Cuccinelli the election (a claim Paul Goldman and I refuted), including Sarvis on the debate stage would have offered voters a bit of relief from that campaign’s incessant negativity.
It also might have offered them a critique of the major parties, their policies and their records.
That would have been refreshing and enlightening.
Hyra campaign director John Vaught LaBeaume told me that his candidate “would be willing to participate in any and all debates or forums that both the Democratic and Republican candidates agree to take part in.”
As he should.
LaBeaume also hopes the debate organizers are open to including Hyra and do not fall prey to the “self-interested campaigns of the Democratic and GOP nominees.”
That would mean the Northam and Gillespie campaigns would have to agree to allow Hyra in as part of their ground rules for debating one another.
That’s self-serving and should not be tolerated by any debate sponsor, particularly if that sponsor is a media organization.
To its credit, Roanoke television station WDBJ tried to get the campaigns to agree to allow Sarvis to join the debate the station sponsored in 2013 owing to “quite a bit of negative reaction to [his] exclusion.”
The McAuliffe campaign was somewhat interested in the idea; the Cuccinelli campaign wasn’t.
Should we expect a similar outcome this year?
Gillespie spokesman David Abrams told me, “Either Ed or Ralph Northam is going to be the next governor of Virginia, which is why the organizations sponsoring debates invited them.”
Northam spokesman David Turner told me the campaign would “agree to include” Hyra in the debates.
That’s a good first step. One that fits Northam’s political calculus, but still good. Candidates should agree to participate in as many as possible and televise them all. And organizers truly interested in an exchange of ideas rather than a clash of talking points don’t allow the candidates to dictate terms.
After all, you’re paying for the microphone.