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Editorial: Next debates for governor need to be better

Editorial: Next debates for governor need to be better

The debate was held at 5 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon, right when most people are driving home from work
Editorial: Next debates for governor need to be better
Gov. Andrew Cuomo and challenger Cynthia Nixon squared off in a debate at Hofstra University on Wednesday.

Relying on political debates alone as a tool to help one decide how to vote is probably not the best way to go about making an informed decision at the polls.

But debates can, with the right format, questions and performance by the candidates, help fill in some of the gaps in a voter’s knowledge and provide tangible and intangible insight into how the individual candidates might fare under the spotlight of governance.

But New York voters hoping to use Wednesday’s state governor’s debate to help them decide between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and challenger Cynthia Nixon were thwarted by an uncomfortable, half-hearted, poorly executed effort that shed little light on how the two candidates would serve New Yorkers over the next four years.

Let’s hope those organizing and participating in debates for the general election will provide a more substantive forum upon which to help voters make a decision.

If you caught the one-hour debate on Wednesday -- either by following it on Twitter live or by tracking down the taped version of the debate later in the evening — you saw an incumbent who seemed reticent to promote his own record while fending off challenges with challenges of his own, and an outsider who passed the competence test by restating her standard campaign lines, getting in a quotable dig or two, and not embarrassing herself.

If you can find a way to make a decision based on that, you’re better than most people.

First off, the debate was held on a Wednesday in August, a day when many people, still in end-of-summer mode, would hardly be expected to watch a debate. Organizers could have predicted it would also turn out to be one of the hottest days of the year, hardly the day when people rush inside to watch TV. The primary is Sept. 13. To boost the potential audience, they could have held it after Labor Day, when people had begun settling into their post-summer routines.

The arrangement of the debate was odd. The debate was held at 5 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon, right when most people are driving home from work, then broadcast later, starting at 7 p.m., on various CBS affiliate stations and the internet. First, what was the purpose of not airing it live? Were they afraid the candidates would utter a profanity? Surely the candidates could have cleared their nighttime schedules for something as important as this. Second, why didn’t they air it at a time when people might actually be likely to watch it, such as prime time? You couldn’t watch the debate live, but you could follow reporters on Twitter who were tweeting highlights in real time. That was a fun way to catch a mini-transcript of the best barbs if you were glued to your computer at 5 in the afternoon, kind of like listening to it on a radio with bad reception. But it didn’t provide voters with a chance to observe the candidates in action live. 

Another odd thing about it was that Gov. Cuomo apparently got to dictate the terms of the debate as a condition for him showing up. Those terms included the odd demand that the candidates be seated instead of standing at a lectern and that the temperature of the room would be set to Cuomo’s liking. The governor has a reputation for preferring the room to be icy cold when he speaks. That prompted Nixon, who apparently favors a more balmy atmosphere, to complain that the room would be set at a “notoriously sexist temperature.” So technically speaking, voters got some insight into the candidates’ positions on feminism and climate change. We guess.

Next time, let the League of Women voters or some other organization host the event and set the terms of a proper debate.

Another problem was that the debate was only scheduled for an hour, and it was the only debate voters would get to watch.

An hour is hardly enough time for the candidates to clear their throats and toss a few insults each other’s way, much less address the many substantive issues that face New Yorkers.

That leads us to the next problem -- the questions.

If you were a New York City resident, you got a partial view of how the candidates would manage New York City’s transit system and some discussion about tolls on the Tappan Zee Bridge, which most upstaters only ever get to drive on when they fly out of New York City or hit a Mets game. You found out that both hate President Trump, but that each believes they hate him more. You learned that Cuomo thinks Nixon is an inexperienced corporation and that Nixon thinks Cuomo is a corrupt corporate Democrat.

But watchers of the debate got no insight from the candidates into major state issues like education, taxes, government corruption, healthcare and infrastructure, and no mention was made of any upstate issues, including helping struggling upstate cities, the gas tax, the population drain, the struggling casinos, protecting the environment, and a whole host of other issues. But we did find out that Cuomo really, really, really isn’t running for president in 2020 ... unless of course, he does. And that each candidate thinks the other is a liar. And that both candidates can be pretty rude.

But if we truly care about informing New Yorkers about the candidates’ positions on the issues and how they would address those issues, the debates need to be better.

First off, there need to be more of them, at least two, one focusing on upstate and another on downstate. Then perhaps a third focusing on statewide issues. Make each at least 90 minutes long to give candidates a chance to explain and debate their positions.

Air them live and in prime time when it’s more convenient for voters who are interested in the outcome to watch.

Moderators need to cut down on the candidates’ trading of barbs and hold the candidates’ feet to the fire to answer the questions posed. And they need to ask more follow-up questions, really get them to explain their positions and defend them.

The future of the state of New York is too important to allow the candidates for governor to set the tone and topics of the political debates.

We deserve better for the general election.

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