Of course it’s not unusual for an incumbent who is ahead in the polls refusing to debate his intra-party challenger.
And in my view, such battles over debates don’t often result in much political gain.
So why do trailing candidates, year after year, engage in the “refuse to debate” debate?
First, voters can understand the trailer’s argument. It’s pretty simple to say, time and again, that your opponent is afraid of you and is refusing to debate because he can’t defend his indefensible incumbent voting record.
Second, no one likes a ducker. And someone who ducks debates may be seen as a coward. Or worse, someone who refuses to play by the rules because he doesn’t have to.
But actual debating is a small part, if even any part, of a legislator’s job.
Yes, a politician needs to have the skills of bringing people together to solve a difficult public policy issue.
But in today’s Congress it seems the right and the left aren’t much interesting in solving America’s problem. They just stand on their own ideological ground and yell at each other.
Under that standard, Hatch should be pretty good at debating, since while he was once considered a conservative who could work with the Democrats – like when he and the late Sen. Ted Kennedy put together the poor children’s health insurance program (CHIP) – now Hatch prides himself on slamming President Obama and badmouthing the Democrats.
Hatch is now part of the “just say no” GOP minority in the Senate.
And so he’s just saying no to Liljenquist’s debate demands.
While this doesn’t bother me much, it is ironic that Hatch could “afford” to take four weeks off before the April 21 state GOP convention to woo the 4,000 state Republican delegates, all of a sudden he can’t find the time to debate Liljenquist because he has such pressing work in Congress.
No doubt Hatch campaign manager Dave Hansen – the consummate professional – has weekly, if not twice-weekly, polling that shows if Liljenquist and his debate demands are sneaking up on Hatch’s lead.
If it looks like the “no debate” strategy is faltering, watch for Hatch suddenly making time for a Liljenquist TV debate.
Whether Liljenquist, who resigned his Bountiful state Senate seat last year to take on Hatch, can make inroads against Hatch at a TV debate is still debatable itself.
Still, such debates are free media. And with Hatch having millions of dollars to spend in this brief primary – and Liljenquist not having millions of dollars to spend – any mass media attention one doesn’t have to pay for is a good deal for the underdog challenger.
In 1986 (I believe it was) the late Congressman Wayne Owens was trying to win back his old 2nd Congressional seat. His GOP opponent was then-Salt Lake County Commission Tom Shimizu.
Owens was well versed in current congressional issues, even though he had been out of the U.S. House for a decade.
Shimizu, a nuts-and-bolts engineer, wasn’t.
In the first of several scheduled debates, Owens wiped the floor with Shimizu, who looked flustered and confused as he tried to sort through notecards to find answers to the audience questions.
(Owens also stacked the audience with his own supporters who threw out difficult policy issues – not doubt issues Owens had boned up on.)
Embarrassed, Shimizu refused to attend more scheduled debates.
The press had a field day. Owens played it up by having a life-size cardboard cut out of Shimizu made up. Owens would show up at the scheduled debate place and time with the cutout. Someone would ask Owens a question. He would answer, then turn to the cutout and say, “What do you think about this, Tom?”
Shimizu did come back to some of the later debates. And he did a better job.
But the damage had been done. Owens was the articulate, self-effacing professional politician. Shimizu was the ducker and bumbler.
Even though the 2nd District was probably more Republican that Democratic in 1986, Owens coasted to an easy victory.
Liljenquist will try to force Hatch into more debates.
Hatch will continue refusing.
And the dynamic won’t change unless Liljenquist starts closing in on Hatch in his campaign polling.
The danger for Hatch, of course, is a last-day Liljenquist surge.
If the younger challenger starts closing on the senior citizen senator, it may be too late to schedule some debates without looking desperate.
So, watch over the next six weeks to what happens in the “no debate” debate.
A hint of Hatch’s strength will be seen in how his campaign reacts – or doesn’t react – to the debate issue.