The first Utah Debate Commission event, featuring the candidates in Utah's 1st Congressional District was a supremely bland affair that was heavy on soundbites and short on policy discussion.
90 seconds to answer a question, with another 30 seconds for rebuttal is simply not enough time for voters to adequately vet candidates for these major offices. Sure, the moderator had the discretion to ask a follow up question, but candidates were only given the 30-seconds to answer. That's simply not enough for topics like control of federal lands, the Affordable Care Act or the future of Hill Air Force Base. Every single one of those topics were screaming for an in-depth follow-up question, but moderator Ken Verdoia's hands were tied by the rigid format imposed by the debate commission, which is a shame.
As for the candidates, incumbent Rob Bishop seemed at ease and well-informed while Democratic challenger Donna McAleer was more focused on her extensive notes and attempts to land cutsey pre-written lines such as describing the coalition fighthting ISIL as a "veritable Star Wars cantina of characters."
If you go by body language alone, Bishop was the clear winner Tuesday. He made eye contact with the moderator and audience, got off a few good one-liners and rarely used up his alloted time. McAleer, on the other hand, was rushing to get in every point, which often led her to stumble over her words. She spent a good portion of the evening looking down at her podium and came off as quite stiff. In fact, Bishop frequently had to tell the moderator "I'm done" when he finished answering a question, while McAleer went over time.
Substance? There wasn't much there for either candidate simply because the format did not allow it.
On the topic of military action against ISIL in the Middle East, Bishop said it was crucial that the U.S. determine what their ultimate objective in the region is and that our fighting forces have the supplies they need to win. McAleer slammed Congress for not thoroughly debating that action and not understanding the implications of action.
The two disagreed on the efforts to wrest control of public lands in Utah from the federal government. McAleer said those lands belong to everybody in the U.S. and it's a "historical fallacy" to think the state has any claim to ownership. Bishop said local authorities could better manage public lands than the federal government because they are more competent to make decisions about their use.
Bishop blamed the gridlock in Congress on the Senate under the control of Nevada Senator Harry Reid. "I don't want to blame Harry Reid, but I am," said Bishop. "There are 350 bills on his desk passed by the House that he refuses to take action on."
McAleer said gridlock exists because voters don't hold elected officials accountable, using the opportunity to again refer to Bishop as a "guardian of gridlock."
"Every two years we have an opportunity to replace 87% of our federal legislators, but we send most of them back and expect the same result," she said.
Both candidates talked about the importance of Hill Air Force Base as a driver of Utah's economy. But when moderator Verdoia attempted to ask a follow up question about Hill's fate if Congress decided to go through another round of base closures, the 30 seconds alloted to each gave their answers short shrift, leaving them to agree that the base was well positioned to survive another round of cuts.
Topics that deserved meaty discussions on their own, like air quality, gun control and unemployment were reduced to simplistic platitudes.
The questions, submitted by voters through the Debate Commission's website, were quite good, but the rules of engagement did not give them justice, nor the answers they deserve.
In the end, Bishop's answers were oversimplified because he's done this sort of thing before. He understands the power of the soundbite and the rules played right into his hands. McAleer tried to overcomplcate things, which left her looking scattered. Even in the areas where she clearly had a lot of expertise, she struggled to get her point across because she was hamstrung by her pre-written answers.
The stilted format left this observer longing for the free-wheeling back-and-forth discussion found in a Doug Wright radio debate. Tuesday's fete was antiseptic and devoid of any sort of character and, ultimately, left little impact.
For a first debate, it was a game effort, but not even close to the home run organizers were hoping for. Fewer questions and more time to explore topics, and some sort of mechanism to foster discussion between candidates instead having them recite rote answers would go a long way toward making these debates a valuable tool for voters as they head toward November.