From the editor: Debating the debates

2014-06-29T00:00:00Z 2014-07-01T09:59:05Z From the editor: Debating the debates The Billings Gazette
June 29, 2014 12:00 am

When I sent the letters, the grease from Election Night pizza hadn’t even made its way out of my system, and I was running on caffeine and adrenaline.

Not more than 12 hours after the final results of the primary election and we were back in election mode — already looking at dates, preparing letters and getting partners lined up for a general election debate.

Figuring out who to invite to a debate is a tricky process, a Catch-22, really. If you invite just the two major parties, you’ll inevitably be accused of being part of the gridlock so endemic to politics today because just supporting the major two parties is what leads to this non-stop, black-or-white bickering. And, yet to invite all candidates on the ballot to a debate of an hour or so might not give voters enough of chance to hear substantive responses from the front runners.

But election season is coming early, especially since Montana might just be the key race in the battle for the U.S. Senate.

Immediate reaction

For the record, we, along with Yellowstone Public Radio, will be hosting a congressional candidates debate for both the Senate and the House races. We invited Steve Daines, John Walsh, John Lewis and Ryan Zinke.

Within a few hours of sending the invitations, the Daines camp asked if we had plans to invite Roger Roots, the Libertarian candidate to the debate. Almost at the same moment, the Walsh camp was calling requesting that we add Roots to the panel.

Part of a newspaper editor’s job is to be a referee. And still, another part of it is to see things from both sides.

And I am sympathetic to both sides. We routinely encourage folks to get involved with the political process, to make a difference, to stand up for his or her own beliefs. We constantly urge readers to send us letters or talk with reporters. So, to narrow the field may seem to contradict what we so often talk about.

On the other hand, debates are finite and so is the time during the campaign season. Montana is a big state, so we want to ensure that we maximize the time voters are exposed to the front-runners. Let’s face it: Even though third parties have made stronger showings in Montana, their roles have largely been that of spoiler. More than 9 in 10 voters still either vote Democrat or Republican. Another way to look at it is like this: If we invited Roots to the debate, he’d get approximately 33 percent of the free time to share his views. But, he’s polling nowhere near 33 percent. That’s not necessarily fair to Daines or Walsh.

And just like the art of daily newspapering, there is no formula or playbook that says how a debate must be held — how many must be invited or what the threshold is that triggers an invitation.

The Gazette has traditionally invited just the Republican and the Democratic candidates. This year, it plans to do the same.

A different perspective

And yet, my colleague and counterpart in Missoula, Sherry Devlin, has a different perspective that has its own merits. Each market, each paper, each debate organizer makes its own decision. There isn’t a rule, law or formula that works perfectly.

Devlin told reporter Mike Dennison in a recent story about the debates, “(Third-party candidates) win elections, they help other people win elections in some cases, and generally provide a perspective that I think we should provide for readers (and) viewers at debates.”

There’s no question that they play some factor. The margin in the Jon Tester-Denny Rehberg race was closer than the total number of Libertarian votes cast in that race. Same thing in the governor’s race between Steve Bullock and Rick Hill.

And you have to think that’s exactly why the Walsh camp seems so eager to invite Roger Roots to the debate. Despite being the incumbent, many wonks and insiders believe it’s Daines’ race to lose. And, if recent voting history is any indicator, using a libertarian spoiler is a great strategy in place of Walsh’s pretty weak political resume.

And yet Walsh may be trying to broker a deal that will backfire. Despite the Walsh camp’s posturing that adding Roots will give voters a fuller perspective, Roots is a political spoiler.

And yet, it’s Walsh who could get spoiled in the process.

The Daines camp is quick to point out that Roots has a well-documented history of racist remarks about African-Americans and anti-semitic writings. It’s odd that a Democrat would choose to stand up for someone like that.

Quite frankly, it smells like an act of either political desperation or clumsiness.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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