Debates have a long and cherished history in American politics, dating back to the beginnings of this country.
History books, (at least those that have not been watered down with political correctness) note the debates that shaped our country as it broke with England, the debates among Congressional giants such as Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun, and Henry Clay over the great issues of the early 19th Century, and the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates.
That type of spirited discussion of issues, often between candidates for elective office, is a thing of the past. Today's so-called debates are usually forums, in which moderators enforce rules, agreed upon in advance by the candidates, that are designed to prevent candidates from being able to break through their opponents' talking points and get down to their depth of knowledge and what they truly believe.
These forums have value. If a candidate is unable to cope with the pressure and is prone to misspeak, often those traits are clearly evident. At times, basic differences between candidates are revealed. But there is nothing that resembles a true debate.
That is why I have enjoyed the flareup over the past couple of weeks over proposed "debates" between the candidates for Seventh District Congress, Republican Billy Long and Democrat Scott Eckersley.
Eckersley proposed debates at each of the county courthouses in the Seventh District. The Joplin Globe and other media outlets say Long agreed to these debates, but the Long camp is now saying that it didn't, but is seeking other "debate" venues that are more accessible to the public.
My favorite part of the ongoing discussion came when it was noted that Long had participated in 10 debates, three of which included Eckersley.
Again, those were not debates.
Consider the one held at Missouri Southern State University in July. The Joplin Globe did the best possible job under the circumstances and had a far better forum than one that was held the previous evening in Springfield. The Globe reporters, as well as a questioner representing the community, asked pertinent questions, and the format allowed follow-up questions, something that served to enlighten those who were in the audience of watching the forum on television.
But when Billy Long refers to this as a debate and indicates that Seventh District voters have had ample opportunity to know exactly how he stands on the issues, he is ignoring some basic truths.
Take the Globe forum, for example. It lasted 90 minutes, certainly long enough for a good forum, or even for a true debate, but not with 10 candidates involved. Divide 90 minutes by 10 and you have nine minutes per candidate, nowhere near enough time for a voter to learn enough to make an informed decision.
That being said, the candidates did not receive even the nine minutes. Remember that the time also included introductions, a brief wrap up at the conclusion of the event, and various thank-yous from the candidates. At best, each candidate had six minutes to get across his message.
When the questioning is divided into categories of vital importance to voters, including the economy, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, health care, and education, no candidate had a chance to speak for more than a minute, or a minute and a half at the most, on any issue.
That left just enough time for talking points and slogans. By the time Billy Long had mentioned how fed up he was, or by the time Scott Eckersley told us how he had stood up for the public in his battle with the Blunt administration, it was time for the next candidate to speak.
The forums can tell us something about how candidates perform under pressure, though even that is difficult when the time is divided among 10 contenders, but they tell us little or nothing about their beliefs or how they will vote on issues that are of paramount concern to voters.
No debates will take place this fall in the Seventh Congressional District. A few decent forums would be nice.