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Foss: We need better debates

Foss: We need better debates

Foss: We need better debates
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Marcus J. Molinaro argue during the New York gubernatorial debate.
Photographer: Pool photo by Mary Altaffer

Count me among those who thought a gubernatorial debate was a good idea.

Debates give voters a chance to see candidates critique each other's ideas and hash out their differences. 

They allow candidates to present competing visions for the future and describe their preferred policy prescriptions. 

Perhaps most importantly, debates help voters make an informed choice when they head to the polls on election day. 

The reality, of course, is much different.

A real debate, such as the one that occurred Tuesday between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his Republican challenger, Marc Molinaro, is rarely the substantive airing of ideas you might have read about in civics class. 

All too often, it's a nasty, mostly substance-free exchange of barbs and one-liners that obfuscates rather than illuminates. 

That's what voters who tuned in to Cuomo vs. Molinaro were treated to, and while even a bad debate is better than no debate at all, viewers seeking a better understanding of where the candidates stand were likely disappointed. 

If they managed to get through more than a few minutes of the debate, that is. 

"I turned it on and then I turned it off," someone told me, when our conversation turned to the gubernatorial debate. Our other dining companions seemed equally disappointed in the debate, turned off by attacks and hostility on display. 

It's difficult to make the case that debates add value to election season when they feature little more than name-calling and sound bites.

If Cuomo came across as a bully who ignored the debate moderators and frequently interrupted Molinaro, Molinaro seemed to struggle to keep up with the governor. 

At times, he impressed me with the quality of his answers -- he seemed much sharper and more passionate on the subjects of homelessness and mental health than the governor, for example -- but Cuomo's attacks seemed to derail him at times. 

When Molinaro accused Cuomo of presiding over the most corrupt state in America, Cuomo turned the tables, suggesting Molinaro's ethics are compromised because his wife has worked for an architectural firm that does work for Dutchess County, where Molinaro serves as county executive. 

On and on it went, with every opportunity to actually bore into an issue of importance to New Yorkers squandered, missed or sabotaged with an ad hominem attack. 

We need debates.

But not debates like the one we saw Tuesday. 

Given how difficult it is to get Cuomo to agree to a debate, voters will probably have to settle for the pitiful circus that passes for a gubernatorial debate until he's out of office.

Make no mistake: We deserve better. 

We also deserve more than one debate, debates in different parts of the state and debates that focus more on upstate issues such as anemic job growth and the ongoing population exodus. 

New York is a big, diverse state that encompasses urban, rural and suburban areas, and we deserve a debate structure that focuses on all of these places, not just New York City and a smattering of hot-button issues such as health care. 

The cynic in me wonders whether it's possible, in this day and age, to make political debates substantive again. 

But the optimist believes that it's possible, and that it's what voters want. 

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper's.         

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