The Utah Debate Commission is a good idea that, unfortunately, has turned into some bad results.
The commission was started several years ago by leading Democrats and Republicans, and local media, in an attempt to make sure that candidates in major races in Utah had at least one televised debate.
That’s the good part.
The bad part is that incumbent/leading candidates have used that one debate as a means of denying all other debate requests.
Thus, this year you have U.S. Senate GOP candidate Mitt Romney agreeing to the commission’s debate (earlier this week), but declining to meet his Democratic challenger, Salt Lake County Councilwoman Jenny Wilson, in any other debates.
The same has been true over the last several election cycles for incumbent/leading candidates in U.S. Senate, House and governor’s races.
I’m an old fella. And so I remember way back in 1982 when then-freshman Sen. Orrin Hatch agreed to half a dozen debates with his Democratic challenger, then-Salt Lake City Mayor Ted Wilson.
As the Deseret News reporter covering that race, I remember traveling to northern and central Utah, following those two guys to debate after debate.
Not all of the debates were televised. But most were at least covered by the local newspapers, TV, and radio.
We also used to have regular debates at the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, at least two of the local TV stations and, until more recently, the Doug Wright Show on KSL Radio.
All are gone now.
We have the single, hour-long debate put on by the local media/TV for each race – the Debate Commission event.
That leaves us with one chance to see the candidates side-by-side, exchanging their ideas.
Worse, the commission has often chosen a format that doesn’t lend itself to the candidates questioning each other, and a prolonged give and take that could lead to one, or both, candidates forcing the other to actually answer a question.
In the recent 2nd District commission debate, incumbent GOP Rep. Chris Stewart was asked if he believed Russia interfered with the 2016 presidential election in an effort to get Donald Trump elected.
This has been a sticking point for Stewart over the last several years, and it would have been nice if he had been forced to answer that question directly.
Instead, he talked around it – as he is want to do -- and neither his Democratic opponent nor the moderator forced a direct answer from him.
Yes, I understand that debates can be tricky things for the incumbent/leading candidates. And they don’t want to expose themselves to situations where they could look stupid or inept.
But those situations are part of the deal – part of running for office, especially a major office.
Way back in 1986 then-Salt Lake County GOP Commissioner Tom Shimizu ran for the 2nd District.
The late Wayne Owens, who briefly held that seat in the 1970s, ran as the Democratic candidate.
Owens was a polished politician and candidate – a smart attorney who knew the issues and the process of the U.S. House.
In their first debate, a town hall kind of format, several of Owens’ campaign staffers packed the meeting and got to ask questions from the audience to Shimizu.
A nice guy, Shimizu was clearly not up to the challenge. He was ill prepared, and had a handful of 3X5 cards with issue talking points. He tried shuffling through his cards to find the appropriate issue – which Owens knew off the top of his head.
I reported in the DN, fairly, that Shimizu didn’t know what he was doing and Owens swept the floor with him.
Other media reports were also critical of Shimizu’s showing.
Shimizu dropped out of several future debates.
And Owens made political hay of it. Owens got a life-sized cardboard cutout of Shimizu, propped it up behind the empty lectern where Shimizu would have stood if he’d showed up.
And then answered questions from the debate moderator and audience, turning to smile at the cutout, waiting for it to answer.
It was good political theater. And Shimizu was embarrassed.
His campaign never recovered. Owens won easily in a seat that Republicans had held previously.
Lesson learned for GOP candidates in Utah.
Fewer debates meant fewer chances that they could be hounded and embarrassed by Democratic challengers – who had less money and fewer natural voters in this very red state.
While the reality of the Utah Debate Commission is that there will be at least ONE debate in every major race, it also means ONLY ONE debate in every major race.
Utah’s public universities are supposed to be politically neutral.
But it would be a public service if each one of the large ones – Utah State, Weber State, University of Utah and Southern University – each hosted a debate (not a Debate Commission debate) for all the major offices in the state within their regions.
Wouldn’t it be nice if the U.S. Senate race this year had four debates, one at each of the universities?
And the Debate Commission would make five.
U.S. House races would have at least two debates – a university in their area and the Debate Commission.
Almost back to the debates of Hatch/Wilson in 1982.
Maybe the incumbent/leading candidate wouldn’t show up to them all.
But, as Owens did to Shimizu in 1986, it would look like the weaker candidate was trying to avoid debates and defending himself publicly.
And maybe voters could get a better look at candidates.
After all, especially with GOP candidate winners, rarely do we replace the incumbent in a major office.
And currently, incumbents in Congress can just disappear for two or six years back in D.C., show up for re-election and have one debate with their challengers – the Utah Debate Commission’s event.