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Lack of debate isn’t fair to democracy or the voters of Michigan

As of now, it looks like Michigan may have no statewide televised debates in either the races for governor or U.S. Senator.

This is pretty universally seen as a bad thing – except by the candidates who don’t want to debate.

As of now, Gov. Rick Snyder has refused to commit to any debates with Democratic candidate Mark Schauer. That’s politically understandable, even though the race is close.

Incumbents generally never like debating challengers, because it elevates their opponent to their level. Usually, they only do so because of political pressure, or if they are themselves behind.

GOP Senate candidate Terri Lynn Land’s refusal to debate Democratic nominee Gary Peters might seem more surprising. This is an open seat, and she is trailing slightly in most polls.

However, it’s clear that her campaign has grave worries about how she might perform. A session in May, where both Peters and Land addressed reporters on Mackinac Island, was a disaster for her. She seemed unfamiliar with some issues, and when questioned by the media, seemed to panic.

Now, her strategy seems to involve hoping to be carried in on the wave of a national Republican landslide.

However, win or lose, any nominee who refuses to debate cheats the people of Michigan. These are two powerful positions, and before we choose a candidate, we should be able to see how they handle themselves under pressure.

Win or lose, any nominee who refuses to debate cheats the people of Michigan.

By the way, though Republicans are attempting to weasel out of debates this year, Democrats have been just as bad.   Sen. Debbie Stabenow refused to debate her last opponent.

She had a giant leads in the polls, and didn’t want to do anything to give her challenger a chance.

That wasn’t fair to democracy, or the voters. 

Technically, the phenomena we call “debates” are not true debates in the college tradition. They are more like joint press conferences. But they still give us a real sense of who the candidates are. The modern history of candidate debates stems from the presidential contests. The first time was in 1960, when Richard Nixon, then vice president, was favored to win over John Kennedy, who was a comparatively little-known senator from Massachusetts.

Kennedy had every incentive to get better known. Nixon prided himself on his debating skill, and thought he’d wipe the floor with his opponent. Instead, the first debate was a disaster for him.

After that, there were no more presidential debates until 1976, when finally, both candidates felt they needed them. Presidential debates have now become an integral part of the campaign process.

Unfortunately, in the age of “gotcha” journalism and the frenetic 24-hour-news cycle, what we tend to take away from these debates is a series of candidate mistakes and funny one-liners.

Still, they do give us insight into those who would lead us. In Michigan, perhaps the most decisive example was 20 years ago. During his debate with challenger Candice Miller, longtime Secretary of State Dick Austin seemed no longer mentally alert.

He then lost the election.

Clearly, Michigan needs an independent debate commission that sets ground rules and dates and pressures the candidates to show up. Democracy would be better served.

Not only that, we just might get better government.

*Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Sen. Carl Levin refused to debate his last opponent. That was incorrect. It has been corrected in the copy above. 

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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