During election season, the Jeffersonian ideal of a representative government wisely chosen by an involved and informed populace seems to serve primarily as an ironic reminder of what our democracy isn’t. The gap between the storyline we learn in civics lessons and the reality of the typical campaign was fully evident Monday night, when Gov. Jennifer Granholm and her Republican challenger, Dick DeVos, debated for the first time. By any measure, it’s a bad sign when a debate begins with the candidates attacking each other for the distortions and omissions in their 30-second TV ads.

Sarah Royce

During the debate, DeVos repeatedly described Granholm’s alleged misstatements as “disappointing.” That’s a term that one might apply to the tone of the debate as a whole, though “predictable” would also work. The debate’s unorthodox “no rules” format did allow more vibrant interchanges than we’ve come to expect from more scripted televised debates. But the obnoxious, stereotypically political behaviors – the carefully hedged evasions, the gratuitous swipes at one’s opponent, the candidates’ determination to stay “on message” and thereby reinforce the narratives their campaigns have spent millions to teach voters – doubtless discouraged some from watching the second and third debates.

Those who did stay tuned, however, might have learned something they’ll want to remember when they head to the polls: Though DeVos is eager for the people of Michigan to think of him only as a successful businessman, the fact is that he is a radical social conservative. His opposition to gay marriage and embryonic stem-cell research, which he reiterated during the debate, probably didn’t raise too many flags – he shares those positions, for better or worse, with many in Michigan’s electorate.

But in believing abortion shouldn’t be legal in cases of rape and incest, DeVos holds one of the least compassionate conservative views out there. Granholm was stating a simple fact, not her political spin, when she described DeVos’s view that a pregnant rape victim shouldn’t be able to consider an abortion as being “out of the mainstream.” Opinion polls on the issue vary, but many find support for that cruel position in the single digits.

The debate’s moderators broke an uneasy and unspoken truce between Granholm and DeVos about discussing abortion. The governor’s campaign isn’t particularly eager for anyone to remember her veto of a bill to ban so-called partial birth abortions, though she is on solid ground in saying that the bill she was presented lacked necessary health exemptions.

DeVos’s commitment to a far-right set of “Christian” values, though, goes far beyond abortion. His extreme social conservatism has long been evident in the causes he’s supported through the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation. It showed through last month in his support for teaching intelligent design, despite his handlers’ best efforts to pass his comments off as support for local control of schools.

Certainly, part of the reason why DeVos is so eager to talk about the economy is that his experience in business comes across to voters far more effectively than Granholm’s almost mechanical rhetoric about outsourcing to China and “unfair trade agreements.” Part of the reason, no doubt, is DeVos’s genuine concern over Michigan’s economic woes. In Monday’s debate, however, Michigan voters saw another equally important reason why this election will be solely a referendum on the state’s economy if DeVos has anything to do with it.

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