Politics & Other Mistakes: Debate debacle

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There’s nothing more fun than watching political candidates in a televised debate. Get out the chips and salsa, crack a beer, and settle back for some quality entertainment.

Beats watching the New England Patriots every time.

Just kidding. Except for the part about the Patriots.

I’ve watched dozens of debates over the years, and in every one, a single thought has been foremost in my mind:

Al DiamonThere’s no way I’d be doing this if I wasn’t getting paid.

Sometimes, a second thought would creep in:

I’m not getting paid enough to endure this crap.

Debates are a drag for several reasons. Most candidates for major office are dull people, who’d rather eat a porcupine, quills and all than say something interesting. Most debates are moderated by TV news anchors, advocates for civility in politics, or similar slugs. They only ask questions that have been asked before, and they only want answers that provide almost no insight into how the candidates would conduct themselves once they’re in office.

But the biggest reason debates are worthless is that they’re overloaded with rules. They require opening and closing statements, which are never anything except a regurgitation of stump speeches. They set arbitrary time limits on answers as if complex issues can always be explained in two minutes or less. They don’t allow the candidates to hit each other with baseball bats.

The only time debates get interesting is when somebody breaks the rules. In 2020, independent U.S. Senate candidate Max Linn enlivened a televised contest with Republican incumbent Sen. Susan Collins and Democratic challenger Sara Gideon by cutting up a mask to protest COVID-19 mandates and refusing to answer questions by proclaiming “Request denied” each time he was asked something.

I clearly recall Linn’s stupid antics. I can’t remember a single thing Collins or Gideon said.

I’m not citing this example as anything other than a primetime bozo-fest. It doesn’t provide us with any kind of template for future debates. Although, if Linn were still alive (he died in 2021), I’d watch any debate in which he participated.

That brings us to another major fault with these artificial candidate interactions: They don’t help anyone decide how to vote. And if that’s the case, there’s no point in holding any more of them unless some drastic changes get made.

About 30 years ago, I hosted a series of debates between legislative candidates on the radio. The rules were simple. I’d ask a question and let each contender answer, until they started to repeat themselves or were non-responsive. Then, I’d cut off their microphones. I didn’t worry about being fair or equal. I only paid attention to getting as much information out there as possible. If one candidate wanted to challenge something another said, I’d allow it. If I wanted to challenge anything, I got to do it, too, because I was in charge of the rules.

The results were debates that covered a limited number of issues but did so thoroughly. Participants who knew what they were talking about came across well. Numbnuts were exposed as, well, numbnuts. Numerous listeners phoned in to say these discussions helped them decide who to support. And what other purpose could there be for going to all that trouble?

In Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, Democratic incumbent Rep. Jared Golden and GOP former incumbent Bruce Poliquin have agreed to debates. But mostly not the same debates. Independent Tiffany Bond has signed on to any and all debates because she has nothing to lose. Except the election.

After considerable foolish maneuvering, Democratic Gov. Janet Mills has agreed to four debates. Her opponents, Republican Paul LePage and independent Sam Hunkler, wanted more, possibly because they love lulling folks to sleep.

If the sponsors of these nonevents truly wanted to perform a public service, they’d see this maneuvering as the farce it is and call the whole thing off. They’d realize most of these candidates have debated numerous times without ever saying a single memorable thing.

Debate organizers should have the guts to try something different. Or they could just rerun old tapes. They can’t be more boring than they were the first time around.

Debate me by emailing [email protected].