Note: This blog draws in part on my experiences and observations interviewing political figures, writers, and analysts for "The Campbell Conversations" on WRVO. To hear past interviews I refer to in these posts, please go to the show's website. The views expressed here are solely my own, and do not represent Syracuse University, the Campbell Institute, or the WRVO Stations.

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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A Radical Proposal to Unchallenged Republican County Candidates -- A Real Debate Versus a Campaign

Yesterday's Post-Standard reported that the three top county-wide incumbent elected officials are not likely to face any Democratic Party opposition next fall, and may not even have minor party opposition.

In each individual case there are good reasons why a serious potential Democratic candidate might decide to sit this cycle out, and there are some good overall reasons for this as well.  Some of them are related in the story, which you can find here.  Serious, quality challengers tend to pick their runs very carefully.

My purpose in writing about this is something different, however, and it relates to the small-d democratic concern that the story points to--is it good for our system to have people running unopposed?  The short answer of course is no.  But if it proves to be true this fall, this feature could offer a silver lining--which I propose here as a challenge to the incumbents as well as thoughtful critics in the community.

Official campaigns have become overly guarded, packaged affairs, with the adversaries more worried about not screwing something up than with convincing people to sign on to a coherent and bold set of policy ideas.  The candidates rarely engage each other intellectually.  In other words, we've come a long way from Lincoln-Douglas.

Since this time around the incumbents literally can't lose, why not take this opportunity to have some real conversations in the public interest on the issues that relate to each position?  What I have in mind are a series of debates, or rather let's just call them spirited, authentic discussions, in which the incumbent would pair off with someone in the community who has a view different from the decisions the incumbent has made and the path he or she has followed.  They don't necessarily have to be directly opposed, just different.  This discussion could then lead to a broader discussion of the macro-level ideas and values that guide their more specific policy positions--what H.W. Bush used to call "the vision thing."

So, for example, a retired judge might debate District Attorney Bill Fitzpatrick about evidence and disclosure rules, which could in turn lead to a discussion about philosophies of criminal justice and the best ways to reduce crime.  Or County Executive Joanie Mahoney might debate someone from the suburbs about the proper relationship between the city and the towns, which could lead to a broader discussion about consolidation and the meaning of political boundaries.  Personally, I'd love to see a debate on the role of party, party discipline, and the nature of executive leadership.

Would this still seem risky to an incumbent?  You bet--what if they "lose" the debate?  But if it were set up in the right way, and the participants approached it in the right spirit, I think it's possible to avoid this trap.  The media would have to help out with this part, and it may require an act of great restraint by the paper and other outlets not to report the events as zero-sum games.  But we remember the Lincoln-Douglas debates not because of who "won" them, but because of the importance of the questions, the process used, and the substantive quality of the entire argument.

Incumbents:  What do you think--are you game?  And are there people out there who are up to the challenge?


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