Debates have been a part of Utah and U.S. politics for more than 200 years.
But how do you use debates to help your campaign or your cause?
An example of a well performed – and well organized – debate was seen Tuesday on Doug Fabrizio’s KUER Radio West show.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, was on the telephone from the DNC headquarters in Washington, D.C., while his challenger, Claudia Wright, was in the University of Utah radio studios.
Especially with in-person or TV debates, it is best to get the candidates together, face-to-face. One can really see how they interact.
I won’t list all the famous TV debates over time. But while the media and candidates themselves like to say this or that zinger or improper action can really change the style or tenor of a campaign, most experts would agree that debates rarely cause one candidate to win, another to lose.
Still, debates can be important. And they can really end up hurting a campaign if gaffs or critical mistakes are made.
Let me say that both Matheson and Wright did well in the KUER debate.
Neither lost their temper nor stumbled too much over questions.
It did appear to me that Wright several times slightly confused the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on corporate donations to federal candidates.
The high court said that corporations could spend their own money on independent campaigns for or against a cause or candidate. But corporations still can’t give money directly to candidates.
At the end of the debate, asked by Fabrizio what was the No. 1 issue for both candidates, Matheson pushed his TV and radio ad themes of fighting for Utah against nuclear waste and renewed nuclear bomb testing.
Wright said while there are many important issues, her No. 1 was getting corporate money out of politics. Earlier she said the only real way to do that is to move to a government/public funded type of campaigning, so only voters’ interests would be seen in Congress, not corporate and industry special interests.
The problems of a newcomer debating an incumbent war horse – like the Wright/Matheson KUER debate Tuesday -- harkens me back to 1986.
Democrat Wayne Owens, trying to win back his old 2nd Congressional seat, was up against former Salt Lake County Commissioner Tom Shimizu, a Republican.
It was an open seat that year. And the general feeling was if someone, like Shimizu, had won handily in Salt Lake County, he’d be a good candidate for the 2nd District – which then was wholly in a part of the county.
But Owens was Washington, D.C., savvy. And Shimizu wasn’t.
I covered their first public debate back then. And it was ugly.
Owens was well versed in critical congressional politics and legislation. Shimizu clearly wasn’t.
Owens also was debate smart. He stacked the audience – which was allowed to ask questions – with some of his young supporters. Whether Shimizu didn’t think of that, or thought such question-planting was unseemly, he was outnumbered and outthought.
Shimizu’s staff had tried to prepare him, giving him 3X5 note cards with subjects and talking points on them.
As Owens dashed off his extensive answers from memory (no doubt knowing the answers to the questions asked by his supporters having prepped for them), Shimizu fumbled through his note cards, stammering along the way.
Shimizu was rattled and embarrassed. And he then made an even larger mistake. He dropped out of some of the debates.
Owens took good advantage. He had made up a life-size cardboard cutout of Shimizu. He’d carry the cutout around to debates or joint appearances where Shimizu wasn’t showing up. He’s pose a question, answer it himself, then turn to the Shimizu cutout and ask it what Shimizu’s position was. Owens got a lot of laughs and media coverage with that ploy.
Shimizu, realizing he was being hurt, came back into some late debates. But the political damage had been done.
Shimizu was a nice guy. But 2nd District voters clearly wanted someone who could hold their own in Congress – and that wasn’t Shimizu. Not in 1986. Owens won handily and held the seat easily until 1992 when Owens tried to step up to the Senate. Owens was soundly defeated by then political newcomer Republican Bob Bennett.
How the debate is organized can be as important as what is actually said.
Congrats to Fabrizio and his KUER format. He pre-screened and identified listeners’ questions (listeners couldn’t call in and mouth any “gotcha questions), and that allowed the names of the questioners to be used.
I remember when KCPW used to have an “open forum” where candidate supporters packed the crowd, shouting out questions, even booing the candidates, all live on the radio. It finally got so bad that candidates started refusing to attend what I had called a public mugging. KCPW has since changed its debate formats for the better – and that public radio station does some of the best local campaign reporting around.
Finally, debating is always played up by the candidates and media. But in reality, Congress is not about debating. Not any more. Senators and representatives spend most of their time giving speeches – often to vacant chamber floors – or asking questions in public hearings. While public speaking is important, true debating skills are rarely seen in Congress – although they are often stressed in campaigns.
The big scare in debates is saying something stupid – like former President Jerry Ford did in 1976 when he said Poland wasn’t recognized as under the control of the Soviet Union, which of course it was.
Still, debating can be really good political theater. And it can be informative and well done, as KUER’s 2nd District Democratic debate was Tuesday.