Election Reform

The Case for Televised Mid-Term Debates


The Case for Televised Mid-Term Debates

January 3, 2003

More Americans participated in the election for Fox’s “American Idol” than in the 2002 midterm mid-term election.

Here is a fact that will get your attention: More Americans participated in the election for Fox’s “American Idol” than in the 2002 midterm mid-term election. The 2002 election turnout was at an all-time low, with only 39 percent of registered voters turning out. This pitiful result should not be surprising because since in California and other parts of the country that similarly featured a slate of safe incumbents, only the most active voters would have even noticed that it was an election year.

Throughout the course of the election year, I was struck by the contrast between the midterm election and presidential election years. Presidential elections build from the summer political conventions to an October climax with the televised debates and then the candidates’ final cross-country barnstorming continuing into November.

In contrast, the recent midterm election was barely noticed, and only for its unusual events, such as the withdrawal of Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., Torricelli  and death of Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn.,  not as a result of any issues at stake.

Why is it that so little attention is paid to midterm elections? In particular, is there any reason why we have nationally televised debates for presidential elections but not for the midterm congressional elections that follow them?

The political parties and the media view both the presidential and midterm congressional elections as national elections, and both determine the national political agenda for the following two years.

There is no doubt that for the past year, the political agenda in Washington was the result of both President George Bush’s election and of the Democrats regaining control of the Senate. This was evident in the passage of campaign finance and accounting reform legislation despite Bush’s opposition or misgivings. The agenda will certainly change again with the Republicans regaining the Senate.

The 2002 midterm elections not only decided that Tom DeLay (R-TX) will be the House Majority Leader and Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) the Minority Leader but also defined the success of the president’s tax proposals, the Republican prescription drug plan, plans to initiate oil exploration in Alaska and conservative judicial nominees.

The 2002 midterm election also increased Bush’s chances for re-election. Unlike his father, who faced a Democratic Congress that strategically set the agenda during the campaign and forced him to veto popular measures such as family and medical leave, Bush will be running with a cooperative Congress that will enable him to implement his agenda.

Given these facts, why is the nation’s political agenda only given attention during presidential election years? There have been televised debates in every presidential election since 1976. The institutionalization of the debates has been of great benefit to the nation and the electorate by increasing voter awareness and affording voters a rare opportunity to hear the candidates speak on an array of issues (instead of the sound bytes that often prevail during the rest of the campaign).

This is evident in the fact that even today, many voters still vividly recall when Ronald Reagan asked, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” in 1980 ,  or when Bill Clinton sympathetically stepped forward towards his town hall questioner in 1992 to address her question about the recession.

The televised debates are a critical part of the presidential campaign and often its climax, having a great impact on the outcome of the election. There is no doubt that these debates elevated skillful debaters such as Reagan and Clinton to the presidency, while punishing Gerald Ford, Michael Dukakis and Al Gore for their missteps.

Establishing nationally televised debates for midterm elections will yield the same benefits as the presidential debates and, hopefully, increase the historically lower voter turnouts for these important elections. Congress should follow the model of the presidential debates and establish a bipartisan commission to select venues and procedures. There should be at least two debates, with one between the two House leaders and another between the two Senate leaders (or whomever the leaders may designate), varying between a town hall and moderator format.

Televising these debates would give midterm elections the attention that they deserve by allowing voters to view the election in its national context and make an informed decision on the critical issues of the day.   Midterm debates also would be a valuable tool for the media covering these elections. Historically, there has been little daily coverage of the final months of the midterm elections as compared with the presidential race because there are no debates or “whistle stop” tours to cover.

Initiating midterm debates will give national and local media a focal point through which it can easily increase its coverage of the midterm mid-term  elections. If both parties commit to these debates, the television networks (or at least the responsible ones) should follow.

Our leaders should not ignore the fact that 61 percent of voters decided to stay home this past election. Having begun the process of reforming our electoral process through campaign finance reform, why not take this chance to elevate our political discourse and attract more voters through midterm mid-term  debates?

Political debates have long been a central part of our history, from Webster versus Calhoun to Bush versus Gore. Let us take this opportunity before the next midterm election in 2006 to establish a tradition that both our Founding Fathers and current voters would wholeheartedly support.

Bennet Kelley practices law in Santa Monica, providing general counsel services to entrepreneurial companies. He was the co-founder and national co-chair of the young professional arm of the Democratic National Committee from 1992-1998.