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Editorial: Cuomo shouldn’t fear gubernatorial debates

Editorial: Cuomo shouldn’t fear gubernatorial debates

Cuomo should happily take challenger Cynthia Nixon up on her offer
Editorial: Cuomo shouldn’t fear gubernatorial debates
Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks in the Red Room at the state Capitol in Albany, N.Y., April 5, 2017.
Photographer: Nathaniel Brooks/The New York Times

They say a political debate has the most benefits for the challenger.

Challengers get publicity for their campaigns they might not otherwise get.

They’re seen on an equal footing with the incumbent, giving them extra credibility. They get to articulate their positions in front of an attentive audience of potential voters. And there’s always a chance the incumbent will mishandle a question or be forced to defend an unpopular decision and end up looking bad.

So why on Earth would Gov. Andrew Cuomo want to give all that advantage to a political challenger like Cynthia Nixon and aid her longshot bid to unseat him by accepting her challenge to a one-on-one debate? He faces far more negative fallout from a poor debate performance than he does from being called a chicken by her.

In response to an invitation to debate Nixon from WABC-TV, the governor’s office has said only that they’re fielding many requests and that voters deserve “a robust, detailed debate on the issues that matter most.” That last part doesn’t necessarily mean Cuomo’s going to show up to any actual debate. But he should.

And not because she’s taunting him.

He should debate her because someone who’s been elected to public office — particularly a governor who has served for seven years — shouldn’t have to worry about giving an opponent publicity or credibility.

He shouldn’t have to worry about what dumb thing he might say or how he might look on TV compared to her. (See: First Nixon-Kennedy debate.)

He shouldn’t have to worry about tough questions forcing him to defend unpopular decisions or about fending off barbs from a sardonic opponent.

If you’re an incumbent elected official in any office, you should be willing and able to defend your policies and your decisions, even under the hot lights of a political debate against someone with the potential to match your intellect and eloquence.

If you’re the governor, you make your opponent regret what she wished for.

It’s OK to set some parameters.

One to three televised debates should be enough to give voters a good base of comparison between the candidates. The governor shouldn’t have to indulge his challengers with a debate every other day. And it’s OK to insist it be hosted by a legitimate, nonpartisan organization like a prominent media outlet or the League of Women Voters.

So rather than trot out a spokeswoman to tell reporters he’s considering his options, the governor should call up that TV station and ask what time they want him to show up.

If any public official, especially the governor, is hesitant or unwilling to face his opponent in a debate, then he should ask himself why he’s running for re-election and why anyone should vote for him.

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