Debates are a Good Idea

Peter W. Schramm

June 1, 1997

When I moved to Ohio following my service in the Reagan administration, I was pleased to find that I had come to a place that takes politics seriously. Oh sure, in Washington people pretend to be serious about politics but that’s usually just a show — an act people play as they jockey for positions higher up on the bureaucratic ladder. Democrat or Republican — it really didn’t matter. Just play your hand right and someday you’ll get to rule your own little fiefdom, in comfort (if not in style).

But in Ohio it’s different. The first question my new neighbors asked of me (after, of course, inquiring about my religion) was, “Are you a Republican or a Democrat?” And it was clear that I had better be able to defend my answer!

Ohioans should take their politics seriously. The proud home to more presidents than any other state (save Virginia) and the first frontier of the Old Northwest Territory, Ohio has a tradition of producing leaders, people who won’t bow to arbitrary authority, and people who do for themselves. Ohioans are an independent lot and they deserve the respect of those who presume to ask for their political support.

Republicans, especially, should keep that in mind as the 1998 gubernatorial race approaches. Whether or not a “deal” was made between Bob Taft and the Ohio Republican Party, the appearance of a deal is out there and this could have serious consequences for the chances of the party’s success in 1998.

This is doubly true when one considers that a serious opponent, Ken Blackwell, has thrown his hat into the ring. Blackwell has called for a series of Lincoln/Douglas style debates to foster a serious discussion about the direction of the party and the issues confronted by Ohioans. It is true that Blackwell’s brilliance is dulled somewhat by his notion that the nomination should go to the candidate with the highest poll numbers at the close of the debates. (I mean, what is a primary election but the ultimate poll?) But this flaw is far less interesting than the proposal for the debates itself. What could be more appropriate than such debates at this time?

There are two reasons why it is good both for the Republican Party and for all citizens in Ohio to have such debates.

First, after a two-term hold on the office of governor, the Ohio Republican Party should be wary of getting too comfortable in the governor’s mansion. The specter of Dick Celeste and the politics of Clinton-style Democrats in the state legislature, should be enough to remind them that they have no monopoly on the affections of the people. All things being equal, Ohioans want to hear arguments based on principles and then be convinced that their governor knows how to arrive at solutions. Failing that, they will choose the candidate who merely appears to have an argument — the one with the most vitality, the one who can justify his candidacy with some other response than, “It was my turn.” Is that candidate likely to be Bob Taft?

Second, Ohio voters are conscious of the fact that during the last two presidential elections the national Republican Party nominated candidates who thought it was “their turn.” Although Bush and Dole were decent and upstanding men, they didn’t think it necessary to articulate their views in a principled and engaging way to the voters. This was true in both the general election and in the Republican primaries. And have we forgotten George Voinovich’s vigorous support for Bob Dole because it was “his turn?”

Politics is only in part about winning elections. After all, Abraham Lincoln lost the 1858 Illinois Senate election to Stephen Douglas but in the debates he laid out the things for which he stood so clearly and persuasively that his ideas were the ones that prospered (and he was elected President two years later!).

At its best, politics is about deliberation and choice. The best politicians should be principled conversationalists. They should have conversations among one another (in public) and with the people. And they should persuade the people to support them. Out of those conversations comes better deliberation and better choice. Then we would have better politicians, and everyone in Ohio would like the process better. The citizens would once again take delight in being participants in a noble enterprise, instead of half-heartedly supporting someone because it is “his turn.”

Lincoln and Douglas’s conversation set a standard by which politicians and their ideas should be judged. That contemporary politicians may not quite be able to reach that noble height is no reason not to make the attempt. Let the conversation begin.

Peter Schramm is the Executive Director of the John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.