A Debatable Number Of Debates

Ah, the debate season. As I write, the second of three presidential debates is history. The third has yet to take place, but as you read, it likely has.

Mitt Romney emerged from his Denver triumph over Barack Obama with an energized campaign and a surge in the polls, turning the president’s post-convention lead into a dead heat.

Obama achieved just as definitive a debate victory at the candidates’ meeting in Philadelphia. I’m not certain how many questions were asked during the course of the 90-minute debate, but the president answered in greater detail and with more energy than Romney to all but three or four of them.

That said, I doubt my own response. Over the past half century our politics have become so polarized that we have become blinded to what the minuscule number of objective voters left among us may see – or to the undecided voter’s obtuseness. How can they fail, after all of that’s been advertised and debated, to see what is so apparent to each of us from our positions at the poles?

What does come through clearly from the first two debates is that it is a performance art. Whatever his positions on the issues, Romney performed better in Denver; whatever his, Obama performed better at Hofstra.

Three debates and one between the vice presidential candidates has become institutionalized in modern American presidential campaigns. In Hawaii’s statewide campaigns, however, the number of televised debates remains campaign season after campaign season – a matter itself of debate.

Invariably, those Hawaii candidates who trail in initial polls, have trouble raising money and are confident in their ability to perform in front of a camera want to debate wherever and whenever they can.

Conversely, those who enjoy impressive initial poll numbers, are able to raise money and feel at all uncomfortable on television want to debate … well, they don’t want to, really, but it will become a campaign issue if they don’t, so they agree to the fewest debates necessary to silence their critics and their opponent.

I’ve long been a proponent of a requirement that candidates who file for statewide political offices agree to a certain number of debates, that voters have a right to see candidates for high office confronting each other over the issues.

But I admit to second thoughts on the matter and to suffering from a severe case of debate fatigue. So far this general election season, I’ve listened, watched or moderated four meetings of United States Senate candidates Mazie Hirono and Linda Lingle, and three between Honolulu mayoral candidates Kirk Caldwell and Ben Cayetano. Add having watched HironoLingle and Caldwell-Cayetano in at least two televised primary debates (or more, memory doesn’t always keep up with repetition), and I think I know what they think on the issues.

It doesn’t change much, from station to station and from debate to debate, despite the best efforts of veteran journalists to come up with new questions and appropriate follow-up questions.

Hirono, Lingle, Caldwell and Cayetano are, any protestations to the contrary, professional politicians with more than 90 years of political experience among them. Their campaigns are all well-financed, and – with the possible exception of Cayetano’s – replete with political consultants and advisers. They answer the same way, no matter the question.

So maybe, just maybe, one debate is enough.