Two Bad Debate Offers

By Kellyn Brown

Republican gubernatorial candidate Roy Brown, succumbing to political saber rattling, challenged Gov. Brian Schweitzer to 18 debates. While Brown is doing what challengers do, shooting for the moon in an effort to put himself in front of voters while spending little money, the Democratic incumbent’s counteroffer was highly disappointing. Schweitzer wants to have five debates on rather blue turf.

So let’s look at the debate arguments, motives and why each is flawed.

The challenger, often with less name recognition, always wants more debates. They would debate every day if they could, hammering the incumbent on a variety of issues and arguing that his or her opponent is in some ways unpatriotic and somehow to blame for much of what’s wrong in your life.

This year, with many GOP candidates on the ropes, Republicans have little to lose by campaigning outside the press, which continues to rehash that voters have little national enthusiasm for the party. Thus, Brown is following his presidential candidate’s lead. Sen. John McCain actually proposed debating his opponent, Sen. Barack Obama, town-hall style (without a moderator) every week until the general election. When Obama refused, McCain opted to go through with them anyway, and has apparently been debating himself. McCain, while not a challenger or underdog, like Brown will face a severe cash disadvantage this election season.

Brown has every right to demand that the sitting governor go toe-to-toe with him in front of Montana voters. But did he really expect Schweitzer to agree to 18 debates, with 13 in September alone? And nothing against Hardin, but the only reason Brown is proposing to debate there is because the debacle over the construction of a jail no one wants to use has left it a place where a popular governor is probably more unpopular than just about anywhere else in the state.

Still, Schweitzer’s counteroffer to Brown is weak for a man who acts both indomitable and inevitable. He agreed to debate Brown in Missoula, Helena, Great Falls, Butte and Billings. Let’s reflect on the 2004 general election when Schweitzer beat Republican Bob Brown by roughly 20,000 votes. Each abovementioned city is located in a county that Schweitzer previously won, often by wide margins. Where are the debates in the third- and fourth-most populated counties in the state – Gallatin and Flathead?

Those are the two of the seven largest Montana counties the governor lost – in the Flathead by a wide margin. Schweitzer ignoring the only urban areas that may be competitive in November is a brazen strategy to only play on friendly turf. Who, among the public in Democratic Helena, stands to learn anything about Schweitzer or longtime-legislator Brown? If anyone has their minds made up, at this point, it’s Helenans.

And while the Flathead remains largely conservative, doesn’t Schweitzer consider Whitefish his home turf? Why not debate in Gallatin County, ground zero for the brucellosis-bison management issue and home of Schweitzer’s arch-enemies in the Legislature? Why avoid Flathead and Gallatin counties, where the issues of economic growth, natural resource management, infrastructure, water use and housing affordability are front and center?

So, as the debate season begins, both Brown and Schweitzer are playing their political parts well: Brown as the unknown jockeying for attention and Schweitzer as the indifferent incumbent who makes his own rules with a shrug. Eighteen debates, while something of a pipe dream, is still a better idea than avoiding debates in Flathead and/or Gallatin counties.