It’s time to have a debate about debates again

By Richard Lee

The debate over debates in New York’s gubernatorial race is nothing new.

For challengers such as Republican Lee Zeldin, debates provide a means to gain media exposure, increase name recognition and introduce themselves to voters who may not have been following the race too closely.

On the other hand, incumbents such as Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul have little to gain.

Debates elevate their opponents. When challengers appear side-by-side with incumbents, they look presidential, gubernatorial, mayoral, etc. Incumbents also have records to defend, and they may not have time to fully prepare for a debate because of the responsibilities of the office they hold.

And this is the scenario we are seeing in New York this year.

Zeldin has been calling for debates and criticizing Hochul, who has yet to agree to any specific debates. She has only said she is willing to debate.

Odds are the two candidates will square off sometime before Election Day, but if the tone of the campaign to date is an indication of what to expect, voters won’t learn much about which candidate is best equipped to govern the state.

Zeldin is likely to continue to talk about crime and place the blame on the governor, who will use her time labeling Zeldin an extreme radical.

Hochul and Zeldin will get questions on public policy issues, but candidates often don’t really answer the questions they are asked during debates. Instead, they change the subject and stress the same talking points over and over.

Even when they do answer the actual questions, the value of their responses is questionable.

As Ted Sorensen, a top adviser to President John F. Kennedy, explained in a 2010 New York Times op-ed, “Presidents and candidates don’t (or shouldn’t) make important decisions in two-and-a-half minute responses and four-minute closing statements.”

Sorensen did not acknowledge that debates increase voter interest, education and turnout. And that may be their greatest value. David Greenberg, a professor of History and of Journalism & Media Studies at Rutgers University, made a similar observation in a 2008 article for Slate.

“Indeed, only if we discard the dominant view of today’s debates as a source of information about the candidates’ programs and think of them instead as a civic ritual can we appreciate their real value: a reminder of the pleasures of the campaign, as a social glue, as a spur to political involvement,” Greenberg wrote.

In other words, lower your expectations when Hochul and Zeldin debate. Don’t expect to learn more about how they will tackle the challenges confronting New York. Just sit back and enjoy the show — and hope that it energies the electorate.

Richard Lee, executive director of the Jandoli Institute, covered politics and government as a reporter and later served as Deputy Director of Communication for two New Jersey governors. Click here to read more of Lee’s On the Road to Albany columns, and follow the Jandoli Institute on Twitter and Facebook.

Categories: Jandoli Institute, On the Road to Albany, Politics, richleeonline

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