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How to make candidate debates relevant again

Associated Press-Rebecca Droke/Ryan Collerd

Voting for the midterm elections in Pennsylvania began in mid-September. And in the case of the Senate race between Democrat John Fetterman and Republican Mehmet Oz, tens of thousands of people will cast their ballots before the two candidates face off in their only debate on Oct. 27.

One reason this debate is important has to do with Fetterman’s health. Fetterman suffered a massive stroke in May, impairing his ability to speak and keeping him off the campaign trail for most of the summer. Since then, he has refused to release his medical records, prompting calls from the Washington Post and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for him to do so.

Fetterman also has not held a single press conference since his stroke and rarely does television interviews outside of hand-holding sessions on MSNBC. His speech is halting and the content sometimes confusing.

“He stammers, appears confused and keeps his remarks short. He has held no news conferences,” observed the Washington Post editorial board. “He receives speech therapy – and we wish him a speedy, full recovery – but the lingering, unanswered questions about his health, underscored by his hesitation to debate, are unsettling.”

“Mr. Fetterman is asking voters for a six-year contract,” the board adds, “without giving them enough information to make sound judgments about whether he’s up for such a demanding job.”

For his debate with Oz, Fetterman has asked for a practice session with the moderator (not including receiving questions in advance) and for a closed caption monitor to be provided. The Oz campaign has agreed to these terms.

But given these issues and conditions, shouldn’t voters see him defend his positions on everything from crime to taxes before even one vote is cast? Fetterman has said on the record that he wants to reduce Pennsylvania’s “prison population by one-third” and claims doing so will make citizens of the state “no less safe.” Given that crime is skyrocketing in places such as Philadelphia, where homicides have more than doubled from levels seen just a few years ago, Fetterman’s call to release so many prisoners deserves robust debate.

In New York, Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) and Republican challenger Lee Zeldin have only one debate scheduled. That too will be held on Oct. 25, well after early voting has started. And it will be held on NY1, a channel that can be seen by only the 2 million people who have Optimum as their cable provider in the New York City metropolitan area. Zeldin has called for five debates and for those debates to be broadcast on major stations that can be seen throughout the state. Hochul, the incumbent, continues to refuse.

Debates being held well after voting commences also extends to presidential debates every four years. In 2020, for example, the two debates between Donald Trump and Joe Biden occurred in October. Why couldn’t these have been moved up to the Tuesday after Labor Day for the first debate, with two additional debates scheduled for late September and late October? 

Earlier this year, the Republican National Committee (RNC) charged that debates run by the Commission for Presidential Debates are hopelessly biased and scheduled poorly.

“The Commission on Presidential Debates is biased and has refused to enact simple and common sense reforms to help ensure fair debates including hosting debates before voting begins and selecting moderators who have never worked for candidates on the debate stage,” reads the RNC’s statement. 

The RNC appears to be referring to Steve Scully, the former C-SPAN anchor who humiliated the debate commission in 2020 after accidentally tweeting what he thought was a private exchange he was having with Anthony Scaramucci, a former Trump communications director-turned-staunch-Trump critic. At the time, Scully asked Scaramucci how he should “handle” Trump but seemed to think the question was in a private direct message. 

It was not. Scully first blamed being hacked, which made no sense, before admitting he had solicited Scaramucci. 

The debate he was supposed to moderate was cancelled by the Commission, which blamed COVID-19 instead of the embarrassment of having to replace its hand-picked moderator, who once interned for Joe Biden. 

The aftermath of the Scully debacle is now clear: When the 2024 general election debates roll around, we may have a situation where Republicans refuse to show up for any debate run by the Commission on Presidential Debates, while Democrats will undoubtedly accuse the GOP of ducking.

What a mess.

Debates should be mandatory. They should occur before one button is pushed in a voting booth. That’s commonsense. Unfortunately, commonsense left the political arena a long time ago. 

Joe Concha is a media and politics columnist.

Tags 2022 midterms Commission On Presidential Debates John Fetterman John Fetterman Kathy Hochul Kathy Hochul Lee Zeldin Lee Zeldin Mehmet Oz Mehmet Oz Steve Scully Steve Scully

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