The other day, I turned on the radio in my car and heard someone discussing some important foreign policy issue, and I was impressed by his intelligence and expertise. After the segment ended, I was amazed to hear it was Bill Richardson. I hadn't been able to tell that I was listening to a presidential candidate.
But are the debate avoiders sleazy shirkers?
[A]ides to the major candidates have concluded that the sheer number of debate and forum demands combined with a sprawling field of candidates on both sides have made them more of a hindrance than a help, at least for now.It's easy to see why the candidates who already have the money and the limelight opt out. They are behaving rationally. The only way it will change is if they get a message that we are judging them harshly. Richardson is trying to frame debate avoidance as shirking responsibility. But since no one's paying attention to him, can he have any effect shaping public opinion?
They are, the argument goes, time-consuming and money-burning obligations in which a candidate will realistically get perhaps eight minutes to lay out his views. That is because of the many candidates that are guaranteed to be on stage, since the field on both sides includes candidates that most voters — indeed, most political reporters — have probably never heard of.
In that kind of situation, the most likely way to stand out from the pack is to make a mistake.
The cost of participating in a debate? Days spent on preparation and travel to the often smaller cities where the forums are held. These obligations can take candidates out of states like Iowa and New Hampshire, with their culture of relatively small candidate-to-voter encounters, which presumably can be more valuable for candidate and voters alike.
And, really, do people want debates at this stage? Debates are incredibly tedious and annoying when there are a lot of candidates. The ones who know they don't have a chance -- like for example, in 2004, Al Sharpton and Dennis Kucinich -- can speak in an entirely different way from the "real" candidates. A debate between real and show candidates is not a level playing field. The show candidates can speak from the heart, swing wildly, and deliver zingers, while the real candidates must maintain somber decorum and make absolutely sure that not one phrase will look wrong taken out of context. It's no wonder the frontrunners won't go there.