Lack of debates a serious problem

Earlier this month Amanda Curtis, Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, challenged Steve Daines to a series of 14 debates in Montana’s seven largest cities and seven American Indian reservations. According to the Missoulian, “answering tough questions … is needed to give Montanans ‘the information they need to cast their ballots.’” Daines has refused to answer the calls for the debates, though one has been scheduled in Billings on Oct. 20.

Meanwhile, Daines has sent an invitation for debates in the Eastern Montana “cities” of Sidney or Glendive. Understand this: In 2011, Nielsen Corporation identified Glendive as the smallest television market in America. So, it seems that Daines is willing to debate, but only if as few people are able to see it as possible. It appears as if he is trying to minimize Montana’s engagement in the race. As I mentioned in my piece from Sept. 18, Curtis needs an excited base of younger voters to challenge Daines, so it is to Daines’ benefit to keep Montanans as uninformed and unengaged in the race as possible.


Curtis’s response was on point: “I think it’s interesting that he is clearly afraid of a 34-year-old, 130-pound high school math teacher and I don’t expect really anything less than more of the same from a congressman who has been a member of a do-nothing Congress.”

Meanwhile, in the race for Montana’s lone U.S. House seat, Democrat John Lewis and Republican Ryan Zinke — who has a 5-point lead based the latest Real Clear Politics data — have one debate scheduled for Oct. 4 in Bozeman. This comes after Zinke backed out of a scheduled Sept. 29 debate in Billings due to “scheduling conflicts,” which involved him traveling to Texas for an undisclosed reason.

Lewis has publicly come out in frustration over the situation. “In an era of unprecedented campaign spending, debates remain a bastion for the free exchange of ideas, where voters can size up the candidates out in the open,” he said, in addition to comparing debates to a “job interview.”

It is incredibly disappointing when candidates refuse to debate, especially in big elections where debates offer the lone opportunity for many people to “meet” the candidates. Instead of engaging in political dialogue and actually convincing Montanans they are the right people for the job, Daines and Zinke are practicing the equivalent of hiding in a bomb shelter and avoiding anything that could damage their manufactured, squeaky-clean reputations. Debates leave candidates vulnerable — from either being confronted with issues on which they don’t have slick talking points, to pulling a Rick Perry (the Texas governor who infamously forgot the three government agencies he wanted to eliminate:

Perhaps Daines is “clearly afraid,” as debates are also platforms where underdogs like Curtis can potentially shine and establish themselves as viable candidates. Abraham Lincoln did this in 1858, when he challenged clear frontrunner Stephen Douglas to a series of debates in the Illinois Senate race. As a result of the debates, Lincoln would go on to win the popular vote (though the Illinois Legislature would elect Douglas the next senator as this was how senators were chosen in those days). The debates — and subsequent publishing of the debates’ text — would also propel Lincoln into the national spotlight, allowing him to become the 1860 Republican nominee for President.

The Lincoln-Douglas debates should serve as a reminder of how valuable direct confrontation is in the political process. Voters should have their candidates’ views and ideas challenged in person — not through snarky Tweets or shameless attack ads — because it is only then when we catch a glimpse of the candidate as a human being and not just a political brand.

The 14 debates Curtis is calling for might be excessive (and the call is probably more of a political stunt than a realistic proposal), but I believe candidates for U.S. Senate and House should be required by law to debate at least three times. These debates should also be made widely available on television, radio and online. I do not think that is too much to ask, and it would certainly help fix a democratic process that has become dysfunctional and ruled by the deep pockets of campaign donors.

So, to Daines, Zinke, Lewis and Curtis: It is time to exercise what should be your obligation as candidates. It is time to debate.