Candidates need to make a case (10/20/2010)

The debates being waged in Idaho right now represent one of the best traditions in American politics, writes David Adler.

In 1858, in the first of seven debates with Abraham Lincoln in their race for a seat in the U.S. Senate, Stephen Douglas spoke first and declared to the crowd that he and Lincoln had agreed to debate to “discuss the leading political topics which now agitate the public mind.” The Lincoln-Douglas debates set the bar for campaign politics in America and established an expectation in our politics: Candidates for office have an obligation to debate those issues which “agitate” the voters.

Let’s not kid ourselves. Debates are not the Alpha and Omega of reasons to support a candidate, but they should play an important role in voters’ minds as they size up the credentials of those seeking office. At bottom, debates represent an opportunity for candidates to offer well-reasoned arguments in support of their policy preferences. Whatever else candidates may have going for them — high cheekbones, charisma, wealth and family connections — they ought not to be electable if they cannot demonstrate to voters an ability to think through contemporary issues and offer, at the very least, some tentative means of solving them.

It’s true that debates may not represent the best stage for all candidates. Some will perform better than others. Some candidates will be more articulate, exhibit better speaking skills and demonstrate an intellectual agility as they respond to questions from panelists. But some caution is needed in weighing debate performances. After all, stage performance doesn’t necessarily guarantee governmental competence. A quick mind and a sharp wit are desirable qualities, to be sure, but the act of grappling with thorny issues that confront our state and nation also requires thoughtful deliberation and reflection. Frankly, that’s why debates should represent a component part, albeit an important component part, of voters’ thought processes.

Debates serve other purposes. They’re a means for holding incumbents accountable and provide a measuring stick by which to judge challengers once they’re elected. Debates educate the voters, encourage independent and analytical thinking in the republic, stimulate interest in politics and civic participation among the citizenry, and, if we’re lucky, bring some excitement and maybe even some theater to the campaign trail. Many believe that the Lincoln-Douglas debates achieved those goals.

On occasion, debates may make a difference. In 1976, Jerry Ford’s gaffe — Poland is not under the thumb of the Soviet Union — undermined his race against Jimmy Carter. In 1984, Ronald Reagan overcame doubts about his age in his second debate with Walter Mondale when he stole the show with his quip that he “wouldn’t hold his opponent’s age against him.” If not perfect, debates in Idaho and across America represent some of the best traditions in American politics.

Adler is the Director of the James A. and Louise McClure Center for Public Policy Research at the University of Idaho. He has lectured nationally and internationally on the Constitution and the presidency.