By John David Dyche
Kentucky’s three candidates for governor -- Democrat Jack Conway, independent Drew Curtis, and Republican Matt Bevin -- debated at Bellarmine University in Louisville on Tuesday night. A banner proclaiming Bellarmine’s splendid motto, In Veritatis Amore, or In the Love of Truth, provided an inspiring but ironic backdrop for the performance.
Debates provide political entertainment as well as political education. They almost always reveal candidates’ personalities, which are undeniably important, but only sometimes elicit new or useful information about their mastery of information and positions on issues.
Superficial things like a candidate’s appearance and mannerisms can sometimes matter as much or more than what he or she actually says. In this regard Democrat Jack Conway was the big loser at Bellarmine.
Maybe not since Republican Richard Nixon’s five o’clock shadow, loose collar, and perspiration hurt him in his first 1960 presidential debate against cool and handsome John F. Kennedy has the way a candidate looked been so costly.
From the moment the broadcast came on the air Conway was sweating like Seinfeld’s George Constanza after he ate the spicy Kung Pao. Conway’s hair, usually carefully coiffed a la fellow plaintiffs’ attorney and former presidential candidate John Edwards, was uncharacteristically disheveled.
If anything, Conway acted even more uncomfortable than he looked. While Bevin was speaking Conway could sometimes be seen mugging and overreacting like a Saturday Night Live caricature of the comically demonstrative Al Gore.
Conway’s attempts at humor were, as one person put it on Twitter, "epic fails." He should forget about trying to be funny in future debates.
In answering a question about making workplaces safer for women Conway invoked his lovely wife and cute daughter before adding a cringe-worthy comment that, "I even have a female dog." Nothing shows you take the issue of sex harassment seriously quite like a little canine quip!
Conway again tried to be cute after Curtis gave a fine answer about having his wife, who is also his business partner, as his running mate. The Curtis response was smart, funny, respectful of his spouse, and well done, all qualities that completely eluded Conway.
In an unflattering contrast, Conway joked that he had "not won a debate with his wife in seventeen years." Thus the standard bearer of a Democratic party that unceasingly claims Republicans wage a "war on women," and whose own female running mate sought to seal her deposition in a sexual harassment suit by female state workers, thought it would be funny to reinforce negative stereotypes about how wives always get their way?
Jack, you’re a regular Ralph Kramden, you are!
Conway did better on substance, but the fast-paced debate format desperately needed follow-up questions to him and the others after some of their superficial answers. The media panelists asked good questions, but because they could not immediately demand more details we were left wondering about the feasibility of candidates’ plans on some big issues.
For example, Bevin was asked to clarify his heretofore confusing position on continuation of expanded Medicaid under Obamacare. He said he would seek a federal waiver that would effectively block grant federal money to Kentucky so it could fashion its own program.
OK, but what will you do if no waiver is granted? And if it is granted, what will your new program look like?
On pensions, Bevin again called for new state hires to be put in a defined contribution, 401K-style, program. OK, but how will this affect existing unfunded liabilities and, as Curtis correctly commented, how will you handle the crushing transition costs?
There is no doubt that Bevin benefited from the fact that the media panelists could not, or at least did not, immediately pursue him on such points. Perhaps Bevin’s most astonishing assertion was that the circus-like spectacle he participated in after Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis violated a federal court order on issuance of marriage licenses to same sex couples was "fantastic" for Kentucky.
Overall, however, Bevin turned in a solid performance. He clearly displayed a more gubernatorial leadership presence than Conway did.
If debates are indeed a form of political theater, Bevin is playing the role of Professor Harold Hill. He looks so good and sounds so persuasive that Kentucky may soon have the policy equivalent of a boys’ band. Let’s hope we end up as proud and happy as River City’s parents did despite their band’s cacophony!
To the extent there was a winner it was Curtis. He came across as a little quirky at times, but more than held his own on the stage, scored several good debating points on both style and substance, and was more likable than either of his major party rivals.
Curtis cannot win the election, and his credible presence probably hurts Conway more than Bevin. But there are plenty of people on each side who still cannot embrace their party’s nominee and may cast a protest vote for Curtis.
The independent Curtis clearly proved he belonged on the stage. Here’s hoping he is included in all future forums and that those debates permit panelists to better cross-examine the candidates on their answers.
(John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney and a political commentator for WDRB.com. His e-mail is email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jddyche.)
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