I was traveling over the weekend, so I am just now seeing this.
Orrin Hatch is not the first entrenched politician to try to deny a challenger the spotlight and credibility that come with a chance to debate the incumbent. And he won’t be the last.
But the senior senator from Utah is being particularly cynical with his grudging agreement to a single joint appearance with his rival in the June 26 Republican primary — former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist. After weeks of claiming that pressing Senate business makes such a debate impossible, Hatch has deigned to a joint appearance with Liljenquist on KSL radio’s Doug Wright Show, sometime in late June.
Meaning no disrespect to the multitalented Mr. Wright, or to his popular radio broadcast, but this is not what the voters of Utah need and deserve. Even KSL, in cooperation with its corporate siblings at The Deseret News, had offered to host a prime-time radio and TV broadcast debate with the two candidates, with Deseret/KSL executives handling all the complicated details.
But Hatch refused.
This is not a smart strategy for the Senator. He has given his challenger a ready made campaign issue and it's a doozy. What better way to paint the incumbent as out of touch with the voters than to have the incumbent refuse to attend debates. What better way to turn the biggest media outlet in the state against your campaign than to refuse to do a prime time debate?
That's not to say that the one debate is bad.....
A radio broadcast can allow for some extended discussion of complicated topics. And candidates and serious voters alike might prefer the focus to remain on those issues, rather than being shifted to such trivia as whether a candidate is looking at his watch (like losing candidate George H.W. Bush) or emitting a frustrated sigh (like losing candidate Al Gore).
But radio lacks the impact of the televised debates that voters have become accustomed to over the past 50 years. It fails to offer voters, most of whom will never have the chance to confront either candidate in person, the best available opportunity to take the measure of each hopeful, side by side.
Another reason why the Doug Wright appearance is not sufficient is the fact that the program airs weekday mornings, from 9 a.m. to noon, a time when most voters are at work and are unlikely to be able to give the program their full attention, if they are able to have it on at all. The show’s companion podcast, while helpful, won’t make up the difference.
...and that is the big kicker. There simply will not be enough voters listening to the show to make an impact in the race and that is something the Senator is hoping for. However when your major paper comes out and says....
It is possible that Hatch has taken to heart the urban legend lesson of the first televised debates, between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential campaign. Lore has it that people who listened to the debate on the radio thought Nixon was the better candidate, with greater knowledge and experience, while TV viewers called the match for the younger, tanner, more handsome JFK.
Dan Liljenquist may be no Jack Kennedy. But he still deserves the chance to debate Orrin Hatch on prime time TV.
And leads the op-ed with the headline "Hatch Hides" then the tactic has backfired. How badly the ad backfires depends on how well the Liljenquist campaign takes advantage of the situation. And based on my email inbox....they are really hammering it home HARD with GOP voters.
UPDATE: Posted this before I got a chance to read the DesNews today.
Two weeks ago we wrote that voters in Utah's Republican primary for U.S. Senate deserved "the best opportunity to compare the candidates side-by-side in open, issue-oriented debate." We shared our belief that "the important electoral values of civility, transparency, accountability and participation depend upon it."
To that end, we offered to work with KSL to provide the format for one "hour-long debate during prime listening and viewing times in early June."
The campaign of former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist immediately accepted our invitation for a prime time televised debate in a press release, asking, as they have previously — and as all challengers are wont — for additional debates.
The campaign of incumbent Sen. Orrin Hatch accepted a previously outstanding offer to debate Liljenquist on the morning KSL radio show of Doug Wright.
That radio debate is moving forward and we look forward to a candid discussion by the candidates of the issues that most affect Utahns.
But it was never our intention for a morning radio show to substitute for a prime time televised debate. And if there were any possible confusion on that point, representatives from KSL and the Deseret News have spent the past several weeks in direct discussion with the Hatch campaign to clarify that point.
The Hatch campaign has said that Hatch's pressing senatorial work only allows the senator time for one debate with Liljenquist in Utah. So, we have addressed that concern. We offered to make the Doug Wright format work for both radio and television, with taped-delay broadcast of the debate in prime time television. We even offered to go to Washington for the debate. The Hatch campaign refused both offers.
Hatch's campaign argues that Hatch already has debated Liljenquist twice and appeared with him on the same platform over a dozen times (all, we note, prior to the Republican convention) and that the issue of debates is one manufactured by a desperate Liljenquist.
This is not a "manufactured" concern. Voters have come to expect, and they deserve, an opportunity to see their candidates in open issue-oriented debate. Indeed, few skills are more important to the job of senator than the ability to argue and persuade — in committee, in the well of the Senate and in the court of public opinion.
We have previously observed that the U.S. Senate has become one of Washington's most dysfunctional institutions, a place where the cynical misuse of position, procedure and protocol has led to a lack of accountability and transparency. Based on our effort to provide the broadest and most accessible platform for civil debate in this important primary, it appears Hatch has picked up some bad habits from the Senate. At least in this instance, he has shown he is willing to cynically use his position to block the open and transparent debate his constituents deserve. We are sorely disappointed.
Most assuredly a losing strategy for Senator Hatch.