Debating about debates

By Mike Lange
Staff Writer

    Don’t look now, but the political season is almost here.
    Expect plenty of television commercials, flyers in the mail and newspaper ads expounding the virtues of candidates in the coming weeks. They’re always smiling in these ads — even Gov. Paul LePage, who usually leaves a press conference scowling.

    Among the latest skirmishes in the three-way governor’s race is a debate about debates. Elliot Cutler would like one in each county. Mike Michaud would agree, but only if Gov. LePage showed up at all of them. LePage would rather shake hands, march in parades and hug pretty ladies. Can’t say I blame him.
    While debates are usually a hot-button issue in campaigns, you really have to ask yourself how important they are — and above all, how many people actually watch them.
    Anyone with a casual interest in politics already knows where each candidate stands on the issues. And no matter who sponsors or moderates the event, someone is going to howl about bias.
    League of Women Voters? Too liberal.
    Chamber of Commerce? Too conservative.
    A daily newspaper or television station? Take your pick.
    I watched the October 2010 gubernatorial debate and dozed off after about 20 minutes. There were five candidates back then. Cutler kept looking at his notes, LePage sounded angry, Libby Mitchell reminded me of my old homeroom teacher, Shawn Moody was articulate but emotional and I don’t remember anything Kevin Scott said.
    Back in the so-called “Golden Age” of television, people were glued to their sets watching debates between presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Kennedy came out the winner, partially because Nixon looked as if he had a permanent 5 o’clock shadow. Appearance counted as much as substance back then.
    But during the presidential elections of 1964, 1968 and 1972, there were no debates. Lyndon Johnson saw no reason to debate Barry Goldwater in 1964 since he had a commanding lead in the polls.
    Nixon, facing Hubert Humphrey in 1968, decided it wasn’t worth the risk to mince words with a proven orator. Nixon barely won that race, incidentally. And in 1972, Nixon was so far ahead of George McGovern that he could have spent the summer at Moosehead Lake instead of campaigning. He won with 61 percent of the vote.
    It’s important to keep in mind, however, that this was decades before the age of the Internet, iPad and smartphone. Status symbols in the 1960s were a new color TV and 8-track player in your car.
    On today’s information highway, we can get more information about a candidate via a mouse click than a two-hour debate. Want to know their positions? Click on their website or Facebook page.
    Granted, there’s still a gap between those who are connected and those – mostly from my era – who wouldn’t touch a keyboard if it had a $100 bill taped to it.
    Still, this is reality. So I’m not holding my breath waiting for the next televised debate.
    If I want to be bored, I’ll watch a Red Sox game.
Mike Lange is a staff writer with the Piscataquis Observer. His opinions are his own and don’t necessarily reflect those of this newspaper.

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