Don't avoid debate and transparency

Published on Saturday, 9 November 2013 20:16 - Written by

The November elections are over, and we have a holiday break — Hallelujah! — before the spring primaries get into full swing. But as candidates at both the state and local levels continue to plan their campaigns, we urge them to choose to not follow the example of Gov. Rick Perry in 2010. Instead, they should participate in debates and editorial board meetings throughout the spring.

In 2010, Perry engaged in a single debate, and that was with primary challenger Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. In the general election, he refused to debate Democrat Bill White, or to meet with newspaper editorial boards.

In other words, he never had to answer tough questions or face his opponent. Some will argue it was a politically sound strategy — after all, he got elected. But what is politically expedient should not come at the cost of transparency to the voters. The damage Perry did in following the advice of his political consultants left many voters in the dark, unlike many of his predecessors, who opened themselves up to real scrutiny.

Candidates in 2014 should actively engage and educate voters through debates and editorial board meetings.

At the gubernatorial level, Attorney General Greg Abbott faces former Texas Workforce Commission chairman Tom Pauken, and a lesser-known candidate, Lisa Fritsch of Austin.

To be honest, he probably has the funds to sail through a primary — as of July, Abbot had $18 million cash-on-hand, compared to Pauken’s $138,000 (Fritsch had not yet filed by that reporting deadline). He has advisors who are no doubt telling him he has little to gain from participating in debates.

But forgoing debates is a disservice to voters.

“Candidate debates have a long history in American politics,” the League of Women Voters points out. “At every level of government — from city council to state legislature, from Congress to President of the United States — candidates participate in debates to help voters understand who and what they stand for.”

Being governor is a tough job; candidates have an obligation to demonstrate to voters how well they function under pressure. We can’t see how they negotiate with the opposition in a closed-door meeting, but answering questions under the hot lights and time pressures of a candidate debate isn’t a bad substitute.

Newspaper editorial board meetings also provide important insights to voters. In such a meeting, candidates come in for an intensive interviews.

Is anything asked that couldn’t be asked from the microphone at a town hall meeting? Perhaps not — but newspaper editorial boards have two distinct advantages.

The first is institutional memory. We’ve been doing this a long time. We’ve met with politicians big and small, effective and ineffective, great and the ingrate. That experience helps such boards to know what questions are most important.

The second advantage is the fact we do this full-time. Even the most politically engaged citizen has other day-to-day concerns. This, however, is our trade.

It’s healthy for political candidates to answer the tough questions. Refusing to talk to those who might disagree with them is simply a lack of leadership.

We believe most candidates want to engage voters.

We also believe debates and editorial board meetings are some of the best ways to do so.