Less isn't more

That was an interesting debate Gov. Peter Shumlin and his Republican gubernatorial challenger, Sen. Randy Brock of Franklin County, held last week on Vermont Public Radio. Too bad there will be relatively so few of them. And for us, it's especially unfortunate, because as matters stand at present, none will be held in Bennington County. There still is a possibility, as we understand it, of one being hosted by the Bennington "Tonight" show on CAT-TV in Bennington. So far, however, that hasn't been confirmed, while six others, all based in northern Vermont, have been.

For a governor who misses few opportunities to remind audiences that he's the first governor since Thomas Salmon's tenure during the 1970s to hail from southern Vermont, that's a little ironic.

Meanwhile, three of the seven debates currently planned for will be based in Burlington. We all knew Chittenden County was a major media market, but we didn't realize it was almost half the state, at least by the debate yardstick.

One argument that has been advanced is that the governor is simply too busy attending to official matters to be able to make more than seven debates. We understand the governor is a busy person, but with all respect, it's a bit of a stretch to argue he's too busy attending to day-to-day business to gear up for more debates than that. The president of the United States will be taking part in three debates with his opponent. He is a busy guy. Running a small state like Vermont, when the Legislature is not in session and in the absence of a real emergency like say, defusing the impact of a Tropical Storm Irene, doesn't quite seem to match up. Of course state business can't go completely on hold during a political campaign, and no one is suggesting it should. But the "I'm too busy" argument is hard to take all that seriously when the governor will be attending, we're sure, a decent number of other events designed to bolster his chances of re-election.

We're more than a little interested in the whole subject, because here at The Journal, we had hoped to organize a governor's debate in conjunction with two local partners, GNAT-TV and the Mark Skinner Library. The intent, of course, was to give area voters a chance to hear first hand from the candidates what they would do if elected in November to the state's highest office. We were hoping to stage a live debate over television that would have been broadcast county-wide. But we didn't make the short list, for whatever reason, and while area voters have other ways of finding out the positions of the respective candidates, it would have been a useful and informative enhancement, we believe.

We're not saying the governor should be debating every night or close to it. We understand he has a day job to look after while running for re-election. But something like a dozen debates does seem like a reasonable number, and we're hopeful it's not too late for campaign to slide Bennington County into the mix. A total of 13 debates were held in 2010, including one in Bennington, when Mr. Shumlin was running for office against Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie. While it's true that neither of them was a sitting governor with state executive responsibilities, somehow they found the time for them.

A further irony is that Mr. Shumlin, an articulate spokesman for his points-of-view, has typically acquitted himself well in those debates, and has a reasonably strong record to run on. Like all incumbents, he probably perceives that offering his opponent an equal platform to debate him involves taking a risk, even when that challenger, the very able Randy Brock, trails him by a wide margin in the polls. Debates are minefields where unintended gaffes can become the storyline, not the informed discussion that occurs for the other 99 percent of the time. They are a potential hazard, particularly for a popular incumbent who has more to lose than potentially gain. But in a retail politics state like Vermont, where the perceived influence of big money spent by anonymous contributors is a bogeyman of the highest order for some, such debates offer both sides a level playing field and a chance to debunk one-sided attack ads and hit pieces. Not that Mr. Shumlin need fear being out-spent in his re-election effort either, given his large fund-raising lead at the moment.

All in all, an unfortunate situation, and one which we hope it is not too late for Mr. Shumlin's campaign to reconsider. Not surprisingly, Sen. Brock's campaign has been willing to go anywhere and debate anytime, but again, that's politics, and in his interest. They readily agreed to our debate proposal, for example.

There are a lot of issues voters deserve to hear more about, and not just through the news media's sometimes distorted prism but live, in person, or over television, with an opportunity for questions and answers. As things stand now, less, in this case, will not wind up being more.


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