Friday, October 7, 2016

Debates Good For Process At All Levels

GOUVEIA: We love our debates

Local matchups serve an especially important purpose for the voters
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Posted: Friday, October 7, 2016 12:15 am
America loves a good debate. But not everyone agrees on what constitutes one.
Debate as a verb must be separated and understood differently from debate as a noun. Our entire political system (or at least, what our entire political system is supposed to be) is based upon the age-old concept of debate, the verb.
We don’t like to be told what to do. We much prefer hearing the options, appraising the motives and sincerity of those proposing them, and ultimately making decisions based upon their advice.
But as much as we love to engage in debate, we enjoy watching our candidates in them even more. Other than a Super Bowl, few events capture the excitement and attention of a high-stakes debate between highly visible and well-known participants.
Believe me, it wasn’t the charisma and charm of either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump that drew more than 80 million viewers for their first fight — er, I mean debate. Rather, it was the desire of voters to see them together in a setting where each had to do more than push their positions and criticize their opponent. They had to respond to the moment under pressure, and prove they could handle not only the spotlight, but the heat it can generate.
Do debates truly influence undecided voters? Assuming those second cousins of unicorns still exist these days? You get different takes on that, depending on who you ask, but I’d like to think they do. And debates can also either solidify or weaken the depth of devotion that supporters have for their candidates.
Personally, I love formal debates. Done correctly, they show us candidates at their best and worst all at the same time. They can provide a glimpse into not only the individual, but the values and abilities that person will bring to the office or the cause they seek.
Like many, I have watched a lot of debates over the years. On the local level, I have been involved in them as a candidate. On multiple occasions, I have also served as a debate organizer, panelist and moderator. That includes debates featuring candidates for city and townwide office, state representative, state senate and various ballot questions and issues.
I thoroughly enjoy local debates because they are generally more than entertainment. When the cameras are broadcasting on your local cable access network, rather than across the world, the audience is much more defined — and the candidates know this. The local audience holds them to a higher standard than the national one.
In a debate for state representative or town office, the answers really do matter at least as much as how you answer them. Style points are still important, but you can’t get by on sound bites and good lines. Why, you ask?
Because the issues discussed are more straightforward than the national issues. The viewers have a better understanding of them and won’t settle for broad answers to narrowly formed questions. A candidate who can’t be specific in a local debate usually ends up being a candidate who can’t get elected.
Of course, there are exceptions. Nearly every town has their local elected official who could get elected merely by listing their name on the ballot. And the re-election rate in our Massachusetts Legislature is astoundingly high, showing us all the power of incumbency.
Over the next few weeks I will have had the honor of moderating two debates between candidates for state representative. Rep. Jay Barrows of Mansfield and his opponent Michael Toole of Norton faced off Thursday night (after this was submitted, in case anything unusual happened), and Rep. Steven Howitt of Seekonk will square off with challenger Paul Jacques of Rehoboth Oct. 19.
The moderator is tasked with asking the questions that people want answered, and in a way that is trying to get a direct answer. You have to do that in an unbiased, objective manner. And usually, if supporters of each side at the end feel you favored the other candidate — you succeeded.
So as much as you might love or hate the Hillary/Trump drama, try and watch some of your local forums. You just might discover what real debating is all about.
Or you might fall asleep. Either way, it’s a good thing.
Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and longtime local official. He can be emailed at and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

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