Candidate debates feel simultaneously like a timeless honoring of American democratic practice, harkening to Lincoln-Douglas, and a vacuous example of the contemporary political circus, dominated by empty, rehearsed rhetoric and relentless spinning of the media.
For all their frequent silliness, debates are essential. They act as lightning rods for lower-attention voters, in the process engaging them and educating them about the candidates and issues. That's most needed at the lower rungs of politics — which, unfortunately, is where debates are less likely to be arranged, agreed to, viewed, and discussed.
In particular, Massachusetts voters are being ill served this year by the relative paucity of debates in contests for the US House of Representatives.
It's a real shame, especially because this is the first post-redistricting election. Many in the state have a new, relatively unfamiliar congressman — who they deserve a chance to learn a little about before casting their vote.
Voters should also get plenty of chances to size up the challengers — whether that challenge is considered highly competitive, like Richard Tisei taking on John Tierney, or hopeless, like Joe Selvaggi running against Steve Lynch.
And since these congressional debates receive only a fraction of the press coverage of, say, the US Senate debates between incumbent Republican US Senator Scott Brown and Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren — especially in today's decimated media market — voters need an opportunity to attend in person. That requires a series of debates in all parts of the district.
It appears that Tierney and Tisei will end up doing a half-dozen or so debates (possibly including televised ones, being discussed as of this writing). Niki Tsongas and her Republican challenger, Jon Golnik, appear set to debate a fairly reasonable four times.
But Lynch and Selvaggi will meet less often than that, as will Bill Keating and Republican Christopher Sheldon. Ed Markey and Republican Tom Tierney might not debate at all. That's only partly due to incumbents ducking — there has been little interest from community groups, let alone media partners, to hold candidate forums.
The candidate who has received the most criticism is Joe Kennedy III, and with some good reason. Although he deserves credit for meeting with voters and news media in all corners of the district, where he hopes to succeed Barney Frank, Kennedy is clearly minimizing the number and impact of direct clashes with second-time Republican candidate Sean Bielat.
But it's hard to sympathize much with Bielat, either. He blatantly avoided debates with his own competitors during the Republican primary, and he's been running a lackluster campaign that doesn't suggest anyone would gain much from more exposure.
PROS AND CONS
Last week's second meeting between Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren — the "Rigmarole in Lowell," I'm dubbing it — showcased the good and the bad of debates. Moderator David Gregory steered the candidates to the most inane and well-trod tabloid topics, while outside, armies of sign-holding partisans wrangled as if control of the Senate hinged upon the occupation of curbside inches. And yet, some 5000 people packing the Tsongas Arena — and a large television viewership — did occasionally witness the candidates articulate and defend their contrasting approaches to crucial policy challenges.