Want to Avoid Debates? Run for Local Office!

If you were as good a debater as Vice President Al Gore is said to be, you certainly wouldn’t make an open-ended promise, viz. “I will debate my opponent any time, anywhere.” This would leave you open to a parry that even a frat boy and his snarling No. 2 man could figure out: “O.K., big guy, let’s do an hour, just you and me, at 1 a.m. on the Cartoon Network. And don’t say you can’t make it.”

To refuse this offer would make one seem, well, like a stinking, lying, tax-loving, big-spending, treasonous shakedown artist. It also wouldn’t look very good.

Mr. Gore, however, looks like he will come out a winner anyway, for his opponent seems on the verge of caving in on that staple of political campaigns, the debate about debates. On the day this is being written, George W. Bush was telling people that the debate question would soon be resolved. “I am confident there will be debates,” he said, giving lessons to his opponent in the use of meaningless language. “As to what they look like and where they are, it will be worked out in due course.” A week before, the Texan was sounding a good deal more definite, saying basically that he had decided what the debate schedule would be and that’s the way it would be.

If W. can’t win on this issue, the debates themselves promise to be a bit more riveting than usual. How often, after all, do we have a chance to watch a major-party candidate for national office turn into an incoherent blob before our very eyes? (Upon reflection, given how often candidates named Bush run for national office, the spectacle is not nearly as unusual as I first thought.)

What is so especially dreary about this business is that it is being discussed at all. In every election cycle for at least the last 20 years, voters have been treated to the great debate debate. Worse yet, every four years or so some kid new to a big job thinks he or she is coining a phrase in writing about “the great debate debate.” In fact, this inside-baseball issue has been around forever in New York. Would Rudy Giuliani debate Ruth Messinger? Would George Pataki debate Peter Vallone? Would Mario Cuomo debate George Pataki? Would Alfonse D’Amato debate Charles Schumer? Local pundits expended great energy on these pressing issues; that they felt obliged to do so tells you about the state of affairs around here. Mr. Giuliani did not debate Ms. Messinger, and Mr. Pataki did not debate Mr. Vallone, and Mr. D’Amato did not debate Mr. Schumer. They or their operatives did a nice job of debating the debates, extending the conversation into October, by which time it was too late.

Mr. Bush, in the statement signaling his possible retreat on the issue, proclaimed that “you cannot run for the Presidency without Presidential debates.” That’s progress, of sorts. Would that New York Governors and Mayors and U.S. Senators felt a similar obligation. New York tradition holds that challengers demand debates and incumbents duck them, and when challengers succeed in ousting incumbents, they take the incumbent position next time around. It is a dispiriting state of affairs, made worse because the debate duckers regularly get away with it. Mr. Bush no doubt has his reasons for trying to limit his exposure to the great debate machine called Al Gore, but he could not get away with avoiding exposure altogether. Editorialists would question his personhood;late-night comics would harass him. Such calumny, however, is rarely heaped upon New York’s top elected officials when they decide that they are far too magisterial for such a gritty business.

No doubt some jaded hack either has written or is about to write that the debate debate is useless, not because the public doesn’t care but because the debates themselves are useless. This line of reasoning is in keeping with the tenor of conventional political commentary in that it presumes the public has no memory and, in fact, is as disengaged from politics as the average big-time political analyst.

Debates, in fact, often provide voters with that Holy Grail of the modern political campaign-the unscripted moment. My favorite took place in a 1982 debate between millionaire Republican Lew Lehrman, who, Jon Corzine–like, was printing money to win voters’ affections, and Democrat Mario Cuomo. (Neither was an incumbent; thus, they debated.) At one point in the proceedings, Mr. Cuomo caught a glimpse of Mr. Lehrman’s wrist.

“That’s an expensive watch you’re wearing, Lew,” Mr. Cuomo said.

(Note to young readers: This remark was delivered in the days when you could say such things and people would laugh, rather than accuse you of starting a class war.)

That was the end of Lew Lehrman. If only he had ducked that debate.…

Want to Avoid Debates? Run for Local Office!