Opinion and Forefront

BECK: Reasons why debates still matter

October 13, 2012

BeckIn the days leading up to the election, there are countless opportunities to learn about the candidates who are running for elected office. With Election Day just weeks away, chances are you are getting bombarded by campaign paraphernalia in the mailbox, on television and radio, the Internet and in your neighbor’s front yard.

It’s a lot of information to process. The seemingly similar logos and themes and endless platitudes often follow a traditional format. Candidate X or Candidate Y will raise your taxes, never raise your taxes, or said something in the last 20 years that might lead him or her to raise your taxes and therefore cannot be trusted.

There’s a reason some call it the silly season. The weekend before Election Day, I’m so tired of it all that I generally dial out because I can recite every candidate’s television ad verbatim.

(Except for Mike Pence. I never see his ads, but I think I’m not his target demographic at the moment. Frankly, it’s probably good for both of us.)

There’s one forum, however, where you can get a look at how a candidate, if elected, will perform under pressure. And that’s during a debate.

Debates can be a blessing and a curse. There are images of debates burned into our psyches, whether it’s Ronald Regan with his, “There you go again,” or the Lloyd Bentsen, “You’re no Jack Kennedy” lines. In the 2008 debates, John McCain displayed some frankly odd behavior and Joe Biden managed to hold his tongue when he debated Sarah Palin. As much as I admire our vice president, I have to admit even I breathed a sigh of relief at the debate’s conclusion.

Unlike a political convention, when every move—except for Clint Eastwood and the empty chair—is scripted, a debate does have moments of candor and spontaneity. A debate offers a window into the personality of the candidates. Are they nervous? Do they make eye contact with each other? Are they being respectful to each other and the audience? Did they check their facts? Are they petty and sniping? (Always a good strategy to win votes.)

The timing of debates generally coincides with when the campaigns are reaching their crescendo. Usually, one or both campaigns have dropped a blistering attack on the other days before. The reaction of the candidates often sets the tone for the rest of the campaign.

This is, of course, if people are even watching.

There are still ample opportunities to participate in debates this month. The Indiana Debate Commission, the nation’s only incorporated and independent debate group, is leading a series of gubernatorial and Senate debates. A non-partisan, statewide organization, it provides broadcasters with a free satellite feed so the debates can be shared live or delayed to Hoosier communities.

You can also check out its website at www.indianadebatecommission.com to watch live streams or to submit questions in advance.

I can’t even begin to imagine the complexities of managing the logistics of multiple statewide debates. Add to that the behind-the-scenes wrangling from the candidates and campaigns driven in large part by overwhelming exhaustion and skyrocketing emotions that occur in the home stretch. It can be a potent mix, and one that often requires skilled negotiators.

The Debate Commission manages all of this, and it does it well. They put on debates that allow the candidates to share their platforms in a civil way, which is to be commended.

I hope this election season, you do watch the debates. Despite the hype and the posturing, it is an opportunity for a meaningful and thoughtful dialogue on the future of our city, state and nation.

Election Day is in less than a month. Please tune into the debates. You’ll be glad you did.•

• Beck served on the staffs of former Mayor Bart Peterson and former first lady Maggie Kernan. A resident of Irvington, Beck owns the strategic communications firm Beck Communications. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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