Opinion: Ohioans deserve to hear candidates debate, not just watch TV ads

Marilou Johanek

The handful of Ohioans who follow state politics are waiting for the debates to start. Spirited political discourse on a range of critical issues gives voters valuable insight about candidates.    

In a live, unscripted forum, a candidate’s responses can’t be prepackaged by media consultants. Not all candidates think fast on their feet. Searing rebuttal by a political foe can be unsettling for a rival without a quick comeback.

How a candidate handles pressure under fire is as important as the topic debated. Those attending or watching televised debates are collecting impressions about character as well as information on policy making.

So if an incumbent is clobbering a challenger in the polls, why risk a sure thing in a public debate? Why chance looking bad or saying something stupid in an uncontrolled venue when victory on Election Day is all but guaranteed?

It’s safer to give rehearsed speeches to admiring crowds. Facing an audience of both supporters and opponents might be uncomfortable, maybe confrontational.

It’s easier to communicate with constituents through TV commercials. Campaign ads are polished political spin. They have warm and fuzzy messages. They make claims without questions. Politicians answer to big campaign donors, not constituents who clamor for details and explanations.

Yet, what’s more American than political challengers on a public soapbox for citizens to see, hear and judge? What better way to flesh out disagreements about public welfare and to clarify stated positions than through pointed queries and cross-examination? Communicating new proposals and persuading acceptance of controversial policies can’t be done in a vacuum or soundproof studio.

The debate on Common Core in Ohio can’t be limited to one view. Neither can the arguments for and against putting energy efficiency and renewable energy mandates on hold.

And one side won’t settle the environmental concerns associated with fracking for natural gas in Ohio. Issues that affect every Ohioan deserve discourse.

They deserve disparate voices, perspectives and opinions. New ideas are born of vigorous dialogue.

We need more than campaign commercials and staged appearances to make informed decisions. But voters who are hoping for more than what a campaign can buy in promotion aren’t holding their breaths for debates before the Nov. 4 general election.

Republican statewide officeholders are passing on close encounters with public scrutiny. Ohio Govenor John Kasich, Secretary of State Jon Husted, Attorney General Mike DeWine and Treasurer Josh Mandel have indicated disinterest in debating their rivals in public settings around the state.

If Democrats enjoyed one-party control in Ohio, or individual districts, chances are they’d pass on pre-election matches as well. Avoiding debate, with its potential pitfalls, is a political calculation to retain power.

Incumbents, safely ensconced in office, figure most Ohioans won’t notice the arrogant snub of the electorate. They’re right.

But citizens who do follow state politics and do expect public servants to engage in public discourse need to register their fury loudly.

Politicians will get away without explaining or justifying their records if voters allow it, but isn’t our collective future in Ohio worth a debate?

Marilou Johanek is a columnist for The Blade. Contact Blade columnist Marilou Johanek at [email protected].