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Editorial: Debates are valuable to voters

Tuesday, August 26, 2014
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As the underdogs in the race for governor, Republican Rob Astorino, Democrat Zephyr Teachout and other members of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's political opposition are ramping up their calls for political debates prior to the upcoming primary and general elections.

On Twitter yesterday, state Republicans were trying to egg on the governor by posting images of him as the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz. Get it?

For challengers, it’s a no-brainer to want debates. They've essentially got nothing to lose and everything to gain by the free attention. But what about voters? What do they get out of them?

Rarely is much new revealed about positions on issues that someone couldn't find out from a candidate's website or by reading a newspaper article about them. If you want to know where they stand on fracking or Common Core, it's out there.

For voters, debates aren't so much about getting basic factual information about candidates as they are about learning their other attributes.

Governing is an exercise in debating. You pitch your positions and then defend them against challenges. Political debates show voters not only where candidates stand on issues, but how well their positions stand up to scrutiny. The better that candidates can defend their positions against a political opponent, the better the chances they'll have of getting those positions enacted. If your positions don't hold up in a one-on-one debate, they've got no chance when it comes time for a larger governing body to vote on them.

Debates also reveal information about a candidate’s character and personality. How well does a candidate respond to tough questions or personal attacks? Do they calmly dismiss them? Do they get agitated and defensive? Are they evasive?

Answers to those questions can be gleaned from a well-moderated debate, helping voters decide the intangibles a candidate brings. Anyone who's studied the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates knows the tanned, handsome Kennedy won TV viewers over with his looks and charm, while radio listeners, who couldn't see Nixon's pale skin and 5 o'clock shadow, generally gave him the edge on substance.

Style and substance both matter in governance, and debates allow voters to learn about both.

Debates also serve voters by helping level the playing field against the inherent power of incumbency. It's valuable to a democracy when money and name-recognition are negated to a degree by equal exposure of all candidates.

So the purpose of trying to draw the governor into debates isn't to poke holes in his armor or to peg his unwillingness to debate as cowardly.

It's to give all New Yorkers a chance to evaluate their prospective leader in ways that campaign ads and websites just can't.

And that's why our governor needs to accept the invitations.

 
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