DYCHE | A modest proposal for gubernatorial debates
John David Dyche
By John David Dyche WDRB Contributor
A reader accused me of disparaging the Kentucky Sports Radio Republican gubernatorial primary debate in a recent column. That was not my intent.
The KSR debate was interesting and revealing. It probably affected the election's outcome.
I applaud KSR and every other organization that did a debate or panel during the campaign. All good faith efforts to inform voters about candidates and their positions are praiseworthy. And a little entertainment is OK, too.
My point was that neither the candidates' published platforms and statements nor any of the debates or forums in the primary campaign provided as much depth and detail as certain complex issues – like state pensions – require and deserve.
That is not a criticism of KSR or others. It is a reality-based observation offered in hopes of continuously improving the Kentucky campaign and election process.
To illustrate my argument I referred to what was probably the most remembered or talked about part of the KSR debate. The candidates answered a question about whether they would hire University of Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari or University of Louisville coach Rick Pitino.
I have absolutely no problem with the question. The answers indeed told us something about the candidates.
But the fact remains that voters went to the poll knowing which coach their potential next governor would want drawing up Xs and Os during a late game timeout, but probably not so much about what that person would do to solve the gargantuan pension problem that plagues the state.
It is not an “either-or” situation. Various types of debates and discussions can serve distinct purposes during a campaign.
Still, can't we do better at moving candidates beyond scripted talking points and superficial statements to demonstrating real understanding of difficult issues? Candidates ought to be made to not only explain their positions, but defend them against well-informed, challenging, and sustained questioning.
This takes time, of course. A nominal one-hour debate divided among multiple candidates and covering several topics is inevitably going to sacrifice some substance and just scratch the surface.
Scott Lasley, political science professor at Western Kentucky University, told Kentucky Educational Television's Renee Shaw recently that debates allowing one or two minutes for answers are “the most overrated things we go through.” He adds, “The problem is not in who is asking the questions; it is in how long you give people to answer them.”
Here is a modest and not altogether original proposal for a different kind of debate during the general election campaign for Kentucky governor. Each of Kentucky's six congressional districts should host a 75-minute debate dedicated to a single subject.
Each one would have a neutral moderator and two panelists. Do not limit the latter to the usual suspects from Kentucky's political press corps, but include experts who have points of view.
This trio of interlocutors would question the candidates and follow-up at length. Such long form dialogue should involve longer blocks of time to allow, or compel, the candidates to show their mastery (or lack thereof) of the big issues, provide the specific details of their proposals, and respond to tough questions they can easily evade in conventional debate settings.
These events would be more like the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 and less like the game show Jeopardy.
Stage the First District debate in Paducah's magnificent Carson Center. Dedicate it to the topic of Kentucky's tax, revenue, and spending situation.
Murray-based former CN2 anchor Ryan Alessi would make a great moderator. Put Jason Bailey of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy in Berea and Jim Waters from the Bluegrass Institute on the panel.
Hold the Second District debate at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green on the topic of state pensions. My beloved alma mater Centre College, also in the Second District, has proposed a debate there, but is unfortunately aligned with the pro-Obamacare special interest group AARP that is anathema to many conservatives.
John Cheves of the Lexington Herald-Leader would be a good moderator. Jim Carroll of Kentucky Government Retirees and Lowell Reese of Kentucky Roll Call would be good panelists.
The Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts in Louisville would be a fine site for the Third District debate. Since the state's largest city is a national medical hub, make this forum's subject matter health issues and Medicaid.
Have Louisville surgeon and Kentucky Educational Television host Dr. Wayne Tuckson moderate. Stephan F. Gohmann, BB&T Professor of Free Enterprise at the University of Louisville College of Business and Ja'Nel Johnson of WFPL News would be strong panelists.
The Fourth District debate should deal with social issues. Hold it at the beautiful, historic Trinity Episcopal Church in downtown Covington.
For a candid, civil, and lively discussion have Terry Meiners of WHAS radio moderate. Have Joe Phelps, pastor of Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, and Brad Bigney, pastor of Grace Fellowship Church in Florence, on the panel.
In Eastern Kentucky's Fifth District the debate at the Mountain Arts Center in Prestonsburg should be about economic development and jobs. Bill Goodman of Kentucky Educational Television would be, as always, an informed moderator. For panelists, have Dee Davis, President of the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg, and Dr. John Garen, Gatton Endowed Professor of Economics at the University of Kentucky.
The final debate, at the Lexington Opera House in the Sixth District, would deal with education. Have outgoing Kentucky education commissioner Terry Holliday moderate it with education reporters Toni Konz of WDRB and Linda Blackford of the Lexington Herald-Leader as panelists.
These are just suggestions. There are many other outstanding possible venues, moderators, and panelists.
Would long policy discussions like this draw big audiences? Maybe not.
Kentucky campaigns now include a lot of good shorter form discussions, from KSR to KET and many others. It is nothing against any of them to wish that Kentucky could have even better, more informative campaigns.
(John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney and a political commentator for WDRB.com. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jddyche.)