Debates between candidates seeking the same political office are a time-honored and worthy U.S. tradition. They provide candidates a chance to show their mettle, to explain their platform and to extol their merits. The face-to-face meeting gives prospective voters an opportunity to see how candidates perform under pressure and to hear discussion of policies free of the self-serving filter of campaign advisers. Debates, then, would seem to be a win-win for all. Not all candidates take that view. While many office-seekers embrace them, others avoid them whenever they can.
That's certainly the case in a few local and regional races. Republican Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, who represents Tennessee's 3rd District, and Republican Rep. Scott DesJarlais, who represents the states 4th District, definitely are among those who seek to avoid forensic competition. Fleischmann simply refused to engage in public debate in his 2010 campaign. He took a more open view of debates in the just concluded GOP primary, engaging in a couple of debates, but he's clearly still not a fan of them.
Dr. Mary Headrick, Fleischmann's Democratic challenger in November, wants to debate the incumbent several times before the November election. That's certainly a reasonable request. Fleischmann, in principle at least, has agreed to debate. Nothing is set in stone, however.
A Fleischmann spokesman refuses to talk specifics about debates between his boss and Headrick. He says that the congressman has promised to debate Headrick, but never said how many times. That might suit the incumbent, but it strongly suggests Fleischmann would prefer to remain in the shadows rather than engage in face-to-face debate with his challenger. That shortchanges district voters, who should demand more from the GOP incumbent.
Things are petty much the same in the 4th District. Eric Stewart, the Democratic nominee, there has challenged DesJarlais to three debates "over the next month." The GOP nominee apparently won't discuss the topic. His spokesman says, "it's very early in the process to be discussing debates." In other words, DesJarlais probably would like to avoid a debate or debates or if he can't do that, he'd like to postpone them as long as possible. Voters deserve a more engaged candidate.
Republican Todd Gardenhire and Democrat Andrae McGary, nominees in Tennessee's 10th Senate District, are such candidates. Both appreciate the value of debate and clearly do not fear them. The former says, "I think the voters deserve it [debates]." The latter says he's ready to debate "now." Such attitudes are laudable -- and refreshing.
Debates serve a valuable political purpose. The more the issues are discussed, the better informed voters become. There's no reason for a politician to run from debate unless he or she has something to hide or fears the electorate. Voters should remember and punish those who refuse or limit debate.