On Sunday, an epic saga came to an end. Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Snyder and Democratic candidate Virg Bernero finally faced off in a debate.
Okay, the saga wasn’t that epic. But it was quite a journey to get Snyder — an Ann Arbor businessman and University alum — and Bernero — the mayor of Lansing — to the debate they participated in last night at a Detroit Public Television studio.
Snyder initially rejected Bernero’s requests for a debate. Negotiations stalled after the number and type of debates was disputed by Snyder. But Bernero was persistent. He resorted to a bit of name-calling and eventually showed up unannounced at a town hall meeting Synder was holding on Sept. 13. Snyder, unable to tell Bernero to buzz off without looking really bad, invited Bernero on stage to hold an impromptu debate. Shortly thereafter, the two finally hammered out a deal to hold a formal, televised debate. In all likelihood, this will be the only public debate the two have.
It’s no surprise that Bernero pushed so hard for a debate — or that Snyder seemed reluctant. Bernero has trailed in the polls since he won the primary election in August and he needs to get his face and plan out to more voters. Meanwhile, Snyder’s “Nerd” campaign has paid off well. People know his name, and things are looking pretty good for him — he’s still ahead by about 20 points in the polls, according to a Sunday Detroit Free Press article. He probably figured that any debate could only hurt his lead.
Though I recognize that holding a debate may not have been the best decision from a campaign-management point of view, I’m glad that Snyder and Bernero got to face off. Debates can be boring — especially to college students – but they’re important.
I don’t think that debates are important for the same reason that a lot of people do — I don’t think that they actually help people make up their minds. They may occasionally be the tipping factor for undecided voters, but I think that, for the most part, people already know who’s going to get their vote when they sit down to watch the debate on TV.
Instead, the value of these debates is that they inform voters about the nuances of the state’s problems and the candidate’s solutions. These candidates don’t have the time in a 1-minute TV ad to explain their stance on the economy. And the chances of voters actually reading through the huge chunks of text on candidates’ websites to learn about tax breaks are slim to none. But at a debate, viewers can get a concise description of candidates’ plans that are easy to understand and help them learn about the problems and possible solutions. And if candidates manage to strike a chord with voters during these debates, maybe those websites will see a bit more traffic.
The problem with these sorts of political debates is that they almost always turn into a whole lot of mudslinging. Candidates shoot poorly-veiled barbs at one another, trying to convince voters that their opponent is either a) a horrible person, b) incompetent or c) corrupt. Instead of a frank discussion about how to deal with the state’s problems, debates are always layered with competitive subtext. But I suppose that’s unavoidable in the context of elections. Candidates need to make themselves seem better than their opponents to garner votes if they want to win. But that imperative makes people miss out on the value of real discussion.
As editorial page editor of the Daily, I love informed discussion. I thrive on it. I believe in an individual’s right to express an opinion (let’s all take a moment to appreciate the First Amendment) and the responsibility to listen to another’s point of view and consider what they have to say. You don’t have to agree with someone with an opposing point of view, but a diverse set of thoughts will help you refine your own opinions. That’s one of the reasons that I — a conservative — can handle working at a traditionally liberal newspaper. It’s also why I value responsive content like viewpoints and letters to the editor, which encourage thoughtful debate on campus.
As usual, both candidates implied negative things about their opponent at last night’s debate — Bernero wasted no time in stating that Snyder was nowhere to be found when the automotive industry fell. But we also learned about the candidates and their plans to fix Michigan. And that education is what makes the debate worth the time.
Rachel Van Gilder is the Daily’s editorial page editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.