Gov. Cuomo this week rationalized his refusal to debate challenger Zephyr Teachout by claiming, “I’ve been in many debates that I think were a disservice to democracy,” adding, So anyone who says debates are always a service to democracy hasn’t watched all the debates that I’ve been in.”
Narrowly speaking, he's right: Sometimes debates can leave the voters wanting more.
As the Times deadpanned this week, “When he was running for governor in 2010, Mr. Cuomo took part in only one debate: a seven-candidate free-for-all whose participants included a former madam.”
In 2002, a similar spectacle unfolded as Gov. George Pataki twice debated his major party opponents only in the context of a forum also featuring candidates from Marijuana Reform, Right to Life and other minor parties.
These debates were good in that they gave voters a chance to hear a little from candidates and parties often ignored in the media and lacking the millions needed to pay for TV ads and direct mail.
But they were also rather superficial affairs: With so many candidates on the stage at once, it was hard to get any deep understanding of what the people most likely to be governor (i.e., the Republican and Democrat) wanted to do and why. In both cases, this worked to the advantage of the candidate with incumbency and/or money on their side (Pataki in '02 and Cuomo in '10) because it denied their chief rival the chance to go toe-to-toe with him.
But this doesn't mean that debates are bad for democracy. It means that having too few of them is.
If Pataki had also gone one-on-one with Carl McCall (or had a three-way, if you'll forgive the term, including Independence Party candidate Tom Golisano) in 2002 and if Cuomo had faced off with Carl Paladino in 2010 after the multi-party debate was done, voters would have been better equipped to make their pick on Election Day.
Organizing a debate means making choices about who to invite, and those choices are not easy. I recently co-hosted a debate for a state Senate contest in Brooklyn where two established candidates with organizational support, Rubain Dorancy and Jesse Hamilton, are joined on the ballot by a very earnest perennial runner, Guillermo Philpotts, who has not reported any campaign donations or expenditures to the state.
The inclusive thing to do was invite Philpotts to the debate, which we did. But with only an hour on air, a lot of issues to cover and three voices to hear, it meant the debate was more of an exchange of sound-bites than an actual back-and-forth.
In 2005, I co-moderated a debate for minor party challengers to Mayor Bloomberg. On stage were a passionate public school teacher, a professorial environmentalist and a retired policer officer. There was also a stand-up comedian, a guy who later went to jail for threatening a reporter, and a candidate who wore goggles and discussed killing President Bush (which I pointed out was a federal crime). The exchange of sound policy ideas and truly absurd notions was, to say the least, lively.
If that had been the only debate of the 2005 season, it would have been a disaster for democracy. Fortunately, there were plenty of others for the major party contenders, so the third-party debate enriched the mix.
During the 2013 mayoral campaign, it's possible there were too many debates and forums. (Full disclosure: I contributed to the slew by hosting a forum on aging issues.) We reached a point where it felt like Bill de Blasio, Christine Quinn, et al., could have just sent a tape-player to take their place, so familiar were the questions and responses.
But this year's gubernatorial race will never risk hitting the point where debates become too much of a good thing.