Would YOU debate if you were running for political office?

Here’s the way it works. If you are ahead in a campaign, you get to call the shots. Generally, you don’t want to debate unless you are an extraordinary person who really thinks in terms of what’s good as opposed to how you can win. The candidate who is not in the lead wants and needs the publicity so he or she gets to call the frontrunner “Chicken.” Candidate #2 gets a surrogate to dress up like a chicken and makes chicken sounds at every public appearance of Candidate #1. “Why won’t Stragulli debate?” “What’s he afraid of?” “GWACK, GWACK,” and so on. Candidate #1 sometimes says, “There will be debates,” but when they happen they are usually too late in the game to make a difference and are often held in a purposely obscure location. When many people are running, as in the race for attorney general in New York, debates can’t be avoided unless and until someone breaks out of the pack. Right after The New York Times endorsed Eric Schneiderman, he was the one guy trying to play hard to get in the debates. That’s when the campaign functionaries begin to say, “Our schedule looks difficult.”

Candidate #1 knows full well that the last thing she wants to do is to give our mythical “Stragulli” the chance to do well in a debate. And a debate could backfire on Candidate #2 who could lose even more ground. It comes down to the question of, “Who’s the better debater?” Just because you talk better doesn’t mean you’re the better person, the better politician or the better policymaker. It just means you’re the better debater.

Let’s take the strange case of Republican-Conservative candidate for governor, Rick Lazio. Lazio is ahead in most polls. He does not want to debate his opponent, Carl Paladino, who is anything but a gentleman. Paladino shoots from the hip, caters to the unhappy tea party types and he spends a lot of his own money. I don’t agree with much of what he says, but I have to admit that when I get him on my syndicated public radio show, “The Capitol Connection,” he is really fun — infuriating but fun. He’s sort of a Jesse “The Body” Ventura type. The media can’t get enough of the guy. Poor Lazio suffered defeat at the hands of Hillary Clinton for a United States Senate seat after a disastrous debate. You may remember how he left his podium and advanced toward Hillary in an apparent moment of anger. This was widely interpreted as outside the rules of debating. Some saw it as bullying and some saw it as sexist. In any case, he was pummeled from all sides for having blown it.

Now with Lazio ahead in the polls, Paladino is coming on strong and wants to debate. Lazio declines and out come the chicken suits. Of course, this puts Lazio in a tough spot. Should he prevail in the primary and face Andrew Cuomo in the general election, the shoe will be on the other foot, and he will be trailing Cuomo by a country mile. It will be his turn to yell, “Chicken” at Cuomo. Cuomo or his surrogates will respond, “Why should we debate Lazio when Lazio wouldn’t debate Paladino?” When Andrew’s father, Mario, was ahead in the polls he always came up with reasons not to debate or to debate only under favorable conditions. When he ran against Pataki in 1994, he insisted that all the third, fourth and fifth party candidates be included in the debates. When Pataki didn’t accept, Mario debated the minor party candidates. I know because I was the moderator. This was unfortunately known as the “Dwarf Tossing Debate.” Mario’s strategy didn’t work, and Pataki won the election.

Some people who run for political office really believe that the voters have a right to decide. While they are few and far between, we can only appreciate that there are some good people left in politics, as hard as it is to believe. Next time you see a debate about debates, you might want to re-read this column.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 8/31/10

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