Thursday, September 16, 2010

Debates Should Be About Ideas

Last Thursday night, the Jewish Community Center of Newcastle County held a candidate’s debate.  I was particularly looking forward to this one.  Up until the middle of September, the only candidates who showed their faces in public were the Republicans and the smaller party challengers.  With the primaries over, the Democrats finally emerged from their slumber to engage their opponents in the general election. 

I wanted to see how the Democrats stacked up against their Republican opposite numbers, but more importantly, I went there to see the Libertarian candidate for US House of Representatives, Brent Wangen.  This would be a rare opportunity for a Libertarian to present his ideas on the same stage as the major party candidates and let people see what real choice looks like in a political contest.  To sum up the Libertarian message:  We actually believe in the fiscal responsibility and smaller government that the Republicans claim to endorse, while embracing most of the socially tolerant attitudes of the Democrats.  We’re like Democrats who know how to balance a checkbook.

Running for public office is not easy.  Doing it as a Libertarian is tougher still.  Most people think it is a law of nature to have only two choices in politics.  They wouldn’t go to an ice cream parlor that only served chocolate and vanilla, but they’ll settle for two political parties which both embrace big intrusive government.  You don’t run as a Libertarian because you want the easy path.  You do it because you want the principled path.  If you want easy, you join the Republican or Democratic parties. 

So back to the Jewish Community Center debate.  They invited Brent to join the debate.  Brent accepted.  E-mails were exchanged to confirm his participation.  The venue was packed.  Turnout was huge.  I was psyched.  I couldn’t wait to see Libertarian ideas presented on equal terms with Republican and Democrat ideas.  Fair fight.  Let the best ideas win.  But politics is a cruel business.  Ten minutes before the debate, Brent was told he wouldn’t be allowed to participate.  They didn’t consider him “a viable candidate.”  Who decides who is a viable candidate?   I guess the Jewish Community Center believes they do.  He is viable enough to have earned a place on the ballot.  I think that’s adequate qualification for his ideas to get an equal hearing in a true debate.  Maybe debates aren’t really supposed to be about ideas.  Maybe they are just a tradition nurtured by the two major parties to create the illusion of choice. 

One of the sponsors of the debate was making some introductions prior to the candidate’s speaking.  She made a point of praising the history of debates at the Jewish Community Center.  She said their success was attributable in part to a long tradition of communication with the candidates.  I almost choked on my own spit when I heard that.  I believe the Jewish Community Center owes Brent Wangen and the voters of Delaware an apology for this shabby treatment.