Debates are more necessary than ever

In the print version, the headline on this story in The State was, “Have debates become unnecessary?” (Why it’s different in the online version I don’t know; it happens sometimes.)

The story is about the fact that, as things stand, there will only be two debates between Nikki Haley and Vincent Sheheen before the Nov. 2 vote.

I take keyboard in hand to answer the question:

No, they have not become “unnecessary.” In fact, in this election, it is more necessary than ever to have as many debates as possible. Having only two is unconscionable, tantamount to flipping a huge bird at the electorate.

One of two relatively little-known candidates will become our governor for four years. After having twice made the awful mistake of electing Mark Sanford — who as a congressman was much more widely known than either Haley or Sheheen before he ran — it is critically important that voters get as many unscripted opportunities as possible to hear them questioned, and compare them side by side.

This would not be for my benefit. I’m not the typical voter. I’ve known them both for years, well enough that there is not the slightest question in my mind: Vincent Sheheen would be a far better governor than Nikki Haley.

I believe firmly that if voters had the opportunity to observe and/or interact with them as much as I have, the majority of them would reach the same conclusion. Multiple, in-depth, face-to-face sessions with each voter is impractical. The best we can do would be to have multiple debates — 10 (the number that Sanford and Jim Hodges had) would not be too many. Far from it — 10 would merely be a good start. While Nikki, who is a very charming and presentable person on first acquaintance, will likely come through a couple of debates all right, each additional debate makes it more likely that voters will know her, and her opponent, a little better. And that would be a very good thing.

Nikki knows this. Hence the two debates.

Yes, I understand the conventional wisdom, and it’s correct as far as it goes. But the fact that she leads in the polls as her motivation for resisting more debates distracts us from a deeper, more strategic motive. You may have noticed that the more information that dribbles out about Nikki Haley, the more she is shown to be something other than what she lets on to be. That’s a far better reason for avoiding debates than her poll numbers.

But as I say, let’s not have more debates for me — or for Vincent, or for Nikki. Let’s have them because the people deserve more information about these young people than they currently have. And the more information they have, the more likely they are to make a decision that they will not regret later.

42 thoughts on “Debates are more necessary than ever

  1. j

    Having attended the first but limited candidate bi-party debate & reception at Orgbg-Calhoun Tech, I wholly agree. My impression of Nimrata was that she was not very comfortable in the big league. Seemed to be a somewhat personable individual, but just spouting what has now come to be the gospel of the teabaggers. She seemed to be socially isolated even from the other candidates & followers in her own party.

  2. Doug Ross

    While I would like to see more debates, I am also not naive enough to think that they will make a difference to the general voting public. The percentage of voters who would actually take an hour to sit and watch even one debate probably falls well below 10%. Part of that is the busy lives we all lead. But another big part of it is that we’ve seen debates before – very little is said that goes outside talking points and sound bites. Sheheen will be no different than Haley – he will dance around controversial topics. Nothing new will be learned that hasn’t been scripted by both candidate’s campaign staffs.

    The format of the debates (because people who DO watch probably wouldn’t want to watch more than an hour) also lends itself to allowing the candidates to get away with not answering questions. I’d like to see a format that allows questions to come from a more adversarial panel with direct follow ups.

    If Sheheen is pinning his slim hopes on these debates, he’s toast already. He hasn’t made his case to the people who matter, he hasn’t generated anything approaching a groundswell of support. He’s run an awful campaign in the one year where a Democrat had a real shot.

  3. Greg Jones

    Mutiple debates are an important tool for an electorate that wants to be informed, but I fear that’s not the case with most SC voters.
    Sheheen will benefit from those idiots who push the straight ticket button. (Many republicans will vote a straight ticket, but will punch each candidate….go figure.)
    There will be many republicans who vote for Sheheen, me included, but there aren’t enough.

  4. Kathryn Fenner

    I believe the true statement is ‘Meaningless Sound-bite-style “Debates” are unnecessary and counterproductive.’

    The article makes the point that Haley thrives in the sort of “debate” of 30 second soundbites that are not responsive to the questions.

    Real, honest-to-God debates–kept on topic and allowing/requiring a thorough response are necessary, as is an audience with an open mind.

    Not gonna happen, I fear.

  5. Joanne

    Thank you, Brad. I absolutely agree.

    This election ceased being about the candidates when they won the primary. I have never been aware as a voter or SC citizen of an election so important. We have to get this one right this time.

  6. bud

    Nice idea but the majority of people who watch are not likely to be swayed and the ones who do watch are a distinct minority of voters. Heck, I wouldn’t watch more than a couple. There are too many good football games on right now.

  7. Brad

    Quoth Bud: “Heck, I wouldn’t watch more than a couple.”

    Well, neither would I, if I were a normal person, and not because of football. Football interests me even less than debates, as an entertainment medium. And even as a blogger I might miss some, while live-blogging through others. But I’d at least keep tabs on all of them, going back to watch them online if I heard (and I would hear) about something new that came up in one I missed.

    I would not expect an average voter to watch all 10, if there were that many. But the more you have, the more likely it is that voters WILL see one, or two, or more.

    Kathryn raises another important point. Nikki is insisting on a format that doesn’t allow anyone to take an in-depth look at her (her whole strategy depends on this). You need depth, and you need give-and-take. In other words, you need a real debate.

    And you need questioners who know what they’re doing. Y’all know I’m always running down TV, but it has one advantage. Some of you may recall my cross-examination of Karen Floyd four years ago during an ETV debate. She kept dodging the question of whether she favored vouchers/tax credits. I kept at her, insisting that she answer the question, Would she have voted for the bill that had been before the Legislature? Finally, she ran out of dodges, and there was this pause of “dead air” that can be more effective than a rubber hose in compelling an answer, and she finally answered (whereas off-screen, she could have dodged me all day and gotten away with it). I may have come off a bit like a bully; I don’t know — but how I came across didn’t matter. The voters got an answer from her.

    We need that opportunity with both Haley and Sheheen. And it is my firm belief that Sheheen would hold up quite well under it, and Haley would not.

  8. Doug Ross


    I assume you agree that John Spratt should hold as many debates as Haley/Sanford, right?

    He hasn’t even agreed to do one pubicly aired debate yet, has he? And we know why that is, right? So he’s flipping the bird to the voters of South Carolina.

  9. Brad

    Good point, Doug.

    Of course, the voters know Spratt. Or certainly should, by now. The issue in that case is whether they’d still vote for him if his physical condition were fully on display.

    But you know what? That doesn’t matter much to me. Yes, I like and respect Spratt and believe he should be re-elected. I much, much prefer him to Mulvaney. But what really, truly matters to me — the thing that I am most concerned that the voters be most fully informed about — is this choice for governor. No one else but a governor is in a position to change the momentum in South Carolina, to help us catch up with the rest of the nation and be well positioned coming out of this prolonged recession.

    A member of Congress is just another vote in Washington. So I’m just not that worked up about who represents us there. Pick your congressional district, and whichever one it is, they can have zero debates or 100 — in the end, the result is mostly determined by the way the district is drawn (one reason Spratt’s always seems in play is because it’s our one swing district — it’s held by a Democrat, but Republicans always have a shot at it).

    I’d like to see every word in a newspaper, every second on television that is currently wasted on Alvin Greene and Jim DeMint, to be used instead to help voters make the most informed decision they possibly can for governor. All else pales by comparison.

  10. Doug Ross

    How about third party candidates for Governor? Can they participate in the debate or are we left to just the two parties that the mainstream media decides are electable?

    Any debate should be open to all listed candidates. Because we are voting for the person not the party, right?

    As for Spratt, if his physical condition prevents him from participating in a one hour debate how can we know he is up to the challenge of serving two years?

  11. Doug Ross

    Since I really don’t care who gets elected Governor, there is part of me that hopes Sheheen pulls it off. Then four years from now we can hear why he didn’t get anything done.

  12. Matt

    This all sounds like the classic “if you vote for my guy, then you are a super-informed enlightened voter…but if you vote for the other guy, then you are an uninformed stupid ignoramus” non-argument that all the rubes in the general public like to make–but that you never expect to hear from an uber-intellectual who knows so much more about South Carolina politics than, well, anyone else…

  13. bud

    No one else but a governor is in a position to change the momentum in South Carolina, to help us catch up with the rest of the nation and be well positioned coming out of this prolonged recession.

    You’re not serious are you. I like Sheheen but he’s very unlikely to “help us catch up the rest of the nation”. We’re just way to entrenched in our 19th century way of thinking.

    But I will concede this much, even if he can only move us forward a tiny bit that’s better than moving backwards the way we have under Sanford.

  14. j

    Doug – Debates may not be productive with the “real estate” developer from Indian Land who believes in personal earmarks from Lancaster County. He received millions of dollars in bond funds for projects he’s never fully produced, incentives and special favors. Unfortunately many in the other parts of the 5th district have no any idea about Mulvaney – they’re going to vote for him because he has an R after his name. Debates as pointed out earlier may not be the best format to get across salient points on this Shister.

    It does matter for SC and the 5th district who is elected. I’ve known John Spratt for 28 years and he is one of the smartest, most ethical and effective members of Congress – I don’t lie!

    Read about the Mick from people in Indian Land who know him best:

  15. Alice Brooks

    Brad, I completely agree with your assessment – and especially the comment that this (lack of voters chance to see candidates unscripted) is like giving us the finger. We should all continue to push them to participate in debates.

  16. Doug Ross


    I know nothing of Mulvaney. All I know of Spratt is that he will not debate. If anyone expects Haley to debate Sheheen, they must expect Spratt to debate Mulvaney as well.

    Why won’t he debate? Is it just his physical condition or is that he doesn’t want to have to defend voting for bailouts and Obamacare? He’s a sitting Congressman working for the people of South Carolina. He’s running on name recognition alone at this point. That’s pretty sad.

    And if you support Spratt so strongly, why not put your name out there saying so? Bizarre.

  17. Doug Ross


    I read the blog post you referenced. You want me to judge Mulvaney on an anonymous blog post?

    If Spratt debates Mulvaney, he would have ample opportunity to ask about the issue on the record.

  18. Joanne

    And to follow-up with what Brad said, the format should be one that allows more than soundbites.

    How much sway does the sponsor for the debates (I presume someone sponsors political debates) have in making sure the debate isn’t just a concatenation of bumper sticker comments?

  19. j

    Doug, Read the news reference links in the anon blog post then you can judge from the public record. I don’t put my name out here because how do I know that it’s really you? I have a constituancy that I don’t want to compromise for my accurate observations and realistic political opinions.

    John’s medical condition doesn’t effect his mind, nor does it effect his judgement or performance. When you’re our age you have some physical limitations. It’s not name recognition, it’s a proven track record and if you’ve ever participated in a political campaign, you’d know proper debate tactics. What has Mick ever done for the public good in the SC Legislature?

    “have to defend voting for bailouts and Obamacare?’ Give us a break! Who the hell do you think got TARP passed, gave us a $3T deficit and an economy that just about went under before Obama was elected? As far as HCR Act, you probably want Medicare and Social Security repealed. How does a civil society treat people? It gives a small % of the people the vast majority of the wealth thru tax policy and legislative concessions – just like a banana republic.

  20. Cal

    Brad, seems that the only thing you are interested in is getting Sheheen elected and Spratt re-elected. More debates for governor and no debates for 5th Congressional District. Kind of hypocrital isn’t it? Maybe The State will hire you back to write their endorsment of Sheheen and Spratt. Or have you already written them?

  21. Brad

    J, while I don’t encourage anonymity, I do (sort of) understand that for some people it’s a must — which is why I allow it, as long as the anonymous contributors adhere closely to my civility standards.

    But with regard to “how do I know that it’s really you?” — it’s really Doug. I’ve seen his picture ID, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t forged…

  22. Mark Stewart

    Why does Spratt need to debate? He has a very long record in Congress. One can see for oneself how he would continue to represent his district. So the people in that district have plenty to go on when deciding for whom they will vote. In these situations, the onus is on the challenger to get their message out in other ways.

    Things are a lot different in a situation where both candidates are relatively new to the contest – whether as a first-termer or as one seeking election to a new position. Even if a candidate has experience in a different area of government, they are still an unknown commodity for that position and ought to participate in debate that goes beyond campaign add soundbites.

    By the same token, I see no reason why Spratt or Wilson should have to debate anyone. Clearly, De Mint would never agree to debate Greene (although it might be a ratings bonanza in a sad way).

  23. Brad

    Yeah, I’m kinda failing to follow Doug and Cal here.

    I explained clearly why I think, in this particular race — for governor of SC in 2010 — there is a particularly strong need for debates.

    And I said if you want debates in congressional races, fine, but I don’t care. The factors that make me particularly want them in the gubernatorial case — two young, little-known candidates, with one of them (the one leading in the polls) having repeatedly demonstrated an aversion to openness — are not present in the other cases.

    But the biggest difference is that, as I said, I simply see us as having less stake in the outcomes of the congressional races. So call for debates in those if you like, but I’m not interested. So how does that translate to me advocating “no debates for 5th congressional district?” I said nothing of the kind.

  24. Brad

    Oh, and I suppose Cal is being facetious with that “Or have you already written them?”

    But in a sense, I have — in that I have written, and/or strongly influenced, all editorial positions taken by the paper over a period of 15 years.

    An editorial board operates a little like a court. Precedent plays a big role. Just as with case law, it’s not absolute — sometimes there are reversals. But precedent is a strong guide, as the board values consistency of message.

    So, if the paper endorses Spratt and Sheheen, the arguments that will be presented — the values expressed — have already been written, by me and the folks who worked for me, over and over previously.

    And yes, based on all that precedent which is sort of in my bones, I would be VERY surprised if the paper didn’t endorse both of them — unless it decides that Spratt’s not up to it physically. Aside from his health situation, I don’t see anything that’s changed from when we endorsed him the other times. With a candidate as strong as Spratt, you don’t suddenly not endorse him unless HE changes (and the health situation might fit in that category) or he has an opponent who is obviously stronger. And Mulvaney doesn’t fit that description.

  25. Burl Burlingame

    One of the entertaining trends of the current campaign season is tea partyers insisting on a debate, and when the opposition says, you’re on, then the tea partyer says never mind, I got better things to do.
    And never mind that the function of the press is to represent the electorate in getting meaningful information out of candidates.

  26. Doug Ross

    The purpose of a debate is to see how both candidates respond to the same questions. There is also the ability to ask specific questions about the decisions the incumbent has made.

    For Spratt to avoid any debates shows he is afraid of a) exposing whatever physical limitations exist right now and b) having to explain what he has done in the past two years.

    Instead of a debate, how about Spratt just take questions in an open forum from his constituents? Or is he just above all that at this point.

    Has he debated in the past? Did he debate when he first ran for the office?

    Another reason for term limits. Spratt thinks he owns the seat purely on tenure. The reason we have elections is to allow the voters to give him a performance review every two years. He should stand up and face his employers and tell us why he should be re-elected, not rely on campaign mouthpieces and opinion writers.

  27. j

    Brad, thanks for your comments and consideration. I realize you know Doug and can verify his email and I presume he’s not an illegal with a forged drivers license. Just kidding. We don’t know each others background and can only judge by blog comments which I’m sure are very misleading. A Brad Blog get-together might be an interesting affair! I promise to not cross the Michael P threshold, however my wife of 43 years says I’m too diplomatic, but blogs bring out the devil in me. Have a good evening and did you ever follow thru on Huffington Post? Prince Howard is joining Arianna and leaving Nesweek. I presume you already knew this.

  28. bud

    An editorial board operates a little like a court. Precedent plays a big role.

    That’s just about the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard in my 54 years on this earth. Why make this so complicated? Just endorse the best person for the job. Precedent cannot possibly have any role in how to decide a political race.

  29. Doug Ross


    I hadn’t seen anything about the ETV debate. Thanks for that info. But Spratt knows a debate on ETV will probably draw about twelve viewers.

  30. Brad

    Bud misunderstands me about the role of precedent in endorsements when he writes: “Just endorse the best person for the job. Precedent cannot possibly have any role in how to decide a political race.”

    I blame myself for this. I know so much about how the editorial process works that I take some things for granted and don’t explain enough.

    When I mention “precedent,” of COURSE I don’t mean that the fact that the board endorsed an individual in the past means you endorse him again. What I meant was that the values and positions on issues that inform the decision tend to remain the same. My comparison to courts is particularly relevant here. A court doesn’t rule for John Doe just because he was a party in a previous case and they ruled for him that time. They consider the case on its merits, and rule in keeping with principles of law shaped in previous rulings.

    It’s not personal; it’s about the ideas.

    The consistency occurs with regard to positions on issues. This generally works for a candidate who has been endorsed before because if the board agreed with his positions before, it probably will again. But there are other factors involved.

    For instance, the board endorsed Sanford in 2002, in part because of the way he had adopted, practically word for word, the board’s long-standing positions on governmental reform, from transparency to restructuring. Four years later, he came in for his endorsement interview and tried to give us the same line — THIS time, he was definitely going to conduct himself in such a manner as to get some action on said reforms.

    By this time, we no longer believed him. In 2002, he had presented his more extreme, destructive ideas as merely marginal. But by 2006, we know he would expend all his energies on those things rather than on the sensible policies to which he gave lip service.

    I hope this further explanation helps.

  31. bud

    It’s nice to have core values and I’m sure that serves the editorial board well. But information can and should have an impact on not just a candidate but on the actual issues themselves. I once supported restructuring of state government. Now I find it mostly a waste of time and something the general assembly should stay away from unless something really compelling is involved.

  32. Brad

    Yes, Bud, as I said above, precedent can be overturned. But most days, in most circumstances, one is careful to be consistent with what one has said in the past. It’s an essential element in credibility.

    When you DO depart from what you said in the past, you sort of have to stop everything and explain carefully to readers why you have done so. Or, if you’re not really changing your core position but it might appear to some readers that you are, you explain why this situation is different.

    It’s definitely not something you do every day. Most days, you are careful to be consistent. You don’t get a lot of editorials written if every day you’re reinventing yourself and what you stand for.

    That’s why editorial boards need a Cindi Scoppe. She was the board zampolit, always calling me back to the True Path with her insistence upon remembering everything we said in the past. And I’m not just talking about what we said in the paper. She held me accountable for what I said privately in our morning board meetings. I’d say something that seemed perfectly reasonable to me at the moment (I actually AM the sort of person who would reinvent himself every day, but that’s related to why I am seen as a terrible time manager — as I said above, you don’t get a lot of editorials written, or widgets made, or whatever, when you’re constantly challenging first principles). And Cindi would call me down with, “But 18 months ago, on a Thursday, sitting right here, you said…” And I would sputter, “Are you sure? Because I think…” But I knew she was right, and that I had to wriggle my way through yet another inconsistency.

  33. Mark Stewart

    As long as we have our parochial general assembly, talk of government restructuring IS a waste of time. But that doesn’t mean that we SHOULD have a weak governor unable to counter the legislature and hold it accountable.

    South Carolina has inherited a fundamentally flawed system unsuited for this century – or the last. If we want to see progress, than we have to start to believe in structural change. Personally, I don’t think that the state is collectively up to the challenge.

    Until people generally come to believe that reactionary conservatism does not mean sticking with the tried and true but instead means repeating the same mistakes over and over again, we really don’t stand a chance of benefiting from responsible, reasoned reform in our state political system.

  34. Doug Ross


    “We’re up to $305 now!”

    I hit my $100 goal and I haven’t even had to call in any favors yet.

    C’mon people – are you going to let a “LIBERTARIAN” raise more money than a liberal and an Unparty guy?

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