The debate logjam: Politically calculated, popularly mistaken

Democratic congressional candidate Heath Shuler’s decision to back away from a debate with Rep. Charles Taylor sent shockwaves through the mountains this past weekend. Politicos, however, say Shuler’s decision is hardly surprising given his lead in the polls, but we feel strongly it was a poor choice to deny voters the opportunity to hear both candidates debate the issues from the same stage.


In truth, however, Taylor must accept an equal dose of criticism — some say even stronger — if voters are going to decide the merits of the candidate based on each one’s public appearances. No one can hold Taylor up as a paragon of openness and accessibility for offering to debate Shuler. Just as Shuler is playing a political game, so too is the incumbent.

It has been more than a decade since Taylor agreed to debate any of his challengers, and that was Maggie Lauterer. During this election he has been too busy to show up at more than a half dozen local forums to which he was invited, forums where Shuler did indeed show up. It seems obvious Taylor’s eagerness to debate this time around is based on one premise — the desire to win, to find a way to deliver a strong blow to an opponent that is apparently ahead.

Nearly two weeks ago media in the region began calling for the debate, and WLOS and the Asheville Citizen-Times went to work with the candidates’ representatives to try and work out the details. There were significant differences in what each wanted, but at times it appeared all would be worked out.

Then Shuler’s camp said no. They could not find the time in the final weeks of the campaign, said deputy campaign manager Andrew Whalen.

That’s a lame excuse. But not surprising, say students of politics. Shuler reportedly holds a lead of up to double digits in some polls. Conventional wisdom says if you’re leading, don’t debate and give your opponent the chance to turn things around.

But we don’t like it. As we have already pointed out, newspapers around the region have criticized Taylor for ducking debates each election. We’ve condemned the Brevard Republican for not being accessible to the press and the public. It’s been a long-running problem for constituents as Taylor has avoided voters rather than welcomed them, especially those who may disagree with him.

The reality is that Taylor has followed suit during this election. As Shuler’s camp pointed out, the Democratic hopeful has appeared at several forums in the district and Taylor has not shown up at a single one. Why, they argue, should Shuler be criticized for ducking one debate that would have been well-choreographed when Taylor has refused to attend many other forums and question-answer sessions that have been much more informal?

It remains to be seen who will win come Nov. 7, but there’s little doubt who the loser has been during this campaign — the voters, who have been subjected to a massive dose of inane televisions ads instead of a healthy debate between their congressional candidates.

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