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Saturday, August 9, 2008

Debate Coach Blues: Senator Johnson Dodges Dykstra

Like Mr. Epp, I took a day to think about Senator Tim Johnson's announcement that he's not up to public debates with GOP challenger Joel Dykstra this year. I wondered if maybe I'd come up with a defensible rationale. But PP is right: Dems can try to spin it, but it's not going to work. I haven't come up with a good excuse, and neither has anyone else:

  • Other politicians have dodged debates, so so can Johnson? Ask any five-year-old how well "Other kids were doing it!" floats with Mom.
  • Dykstra hasn't "earned" the right to debate? Um, he put his hat in the ring. And what about the voters: what do they have to do to "earn" the right to a debate?
  • Dykstra can't win anyway? To quote Captain Steven Hiller, "I ain't heard no fat lady!"

Instead of spinning, we Dems would do better to acknowledge and accept Senator Johnson's own honest explanation: he's just not recovered enough to make a public debate a fair fight.

And that statement opens the door for the honest question: If Senator Johnson cannot handle a public debate, is he the best candidate for the U.S. Senate?

Now I do have my bias, not political, but epistemological. I'm an old high school debater. I was a Madison Bulldog debater from 1987 to 1989. Since then, I've judged, coached, and taught debate and other speech activities. I've spent my whole adult life promoting the idea that we come to know what we know (that's epistemology) through civil discourse, through putting opposing ideas, theories, or policies side by side and testing them through debate.

It's like that fish example: a fish doesn't know its wet unless it jumps out of the water and experiences dry. You don't know you're a Republican until you meet some Dems and start talking policy. We learn through comparison and contrast.

Even I can acknowledge that public political debates as practiced in our culture are not perfect measures of candidates' intellect or chracter. Under the constraints of the clock and the media, they can devolve into name-calling and focus-grouped sound bites. There's even research that suggests viewers just want to see conflict and have their beliefs reinforced; give them an honest, civil discussion of policy differences, and many will just change the channel.

But debates are still important. Two candidates from opposing parties, occupying the same stage, answering the same questions, interacting with each other, represent the community-wide discussion we all should engage in at every election. Beyond that important symbolism, debates are the traditional practical yardstick we have developed to measure our candidates' abilities. Public debates do measure the ability of candidates to think on their feet, to marshal facts and figures from memory, and to defend their positions under pressure, all important abilities for a public official. To decline to debate is to deny the voters an opportunity to take that measure.

Sorry, Dems, but on this issue, we have to accept an unspinnable fact: Senator Johnson has conceded that Senator Dykstra can outperform him in one important skillset for a United States Senator: public speaking. Senator Johnson now needs to make the case that he can outperform Senator Dykstra in enough other areas to earn our ballot.

(But maybe we shouldn't worry: my anti-Obama commenters have been warning us all year that we shouldn't vote for the silveriest-tongued devil on the ballot. By that thinking, they should all be flocking to the Johnson camp.)

Update 10:47 CDT: Lest you think I've been swayed by the hypnotic drumbeat of PP's non-stop Johnson announcement coverage, see the clear-eyed, level-headed Kevin Woster at Mount Blogmore, who says Johnson's decision to skip the debates is the smart thing, though not the right thing.


  1. I really feel this is the year of Obama, and if that is true, we need to maintain balance in the US Senate. Sen. Johnson, feeling his inability to communicate in a debate correlates to his inability to communicate to the entire Senate. As voters, we can choose to believe his doctors who say he will regain his speech, or we can believe what we see today and what we will know on election day. Unless he has dramatic improvement in his ability to get his message across without having time to memorize a TV script, he probably shouldn't be re-elected. As a state, we deserve representation, regardless of the party. Even if Dykstra wins this fall, Johnson will still have his pension.

  2. What does Johnson's pension have to do with the topic.


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