Debating the coverage
It’s a political tradition stretching back decades, but the debate over how executive debates will be conducted is generally as interesting as the debates themselves.
In a Thursday news dump before the Independence Day holiday, the Anthony Brown – Ken Ulman campaign proposed three debates “maintaining the tradition set from previous gubernatorial elections… this schedule will reach more Marylanders by ensuring that all of the debates are broadcast statewide.” Basically, one would be on WJZ out of Baltimore (co-sponsored by the Baltimore Sun), one would be on WRC in Washington (co-sponsored by the Washington Post), and the last would be on Larry Young’s WOLB-AM morning show in Baltimore, “partnered” with the Kojo Nnamdi show on WAMU-FM. All three would be broadcast statewide on either Maryland Public Television or NPR. A lieutenant governor debate would be added, at an unspecified location in western Maryland.
Larry Hogan blasted the Brown-Ulman proposal:
We think that the voters of Maryland deserve the opportunity to know the differences between us. We have accepted every invitation received to date without any restrictions whatsoever as to the format and have also called for debates in all regions of the state.
We have said we would be pleased to participate in debates on all the Baltimore, Washington, Salisbury and Hagerstown television stations and before any important organization anywhere in Maryland.
We believe the people of Maryland deserve a real clear choice for a change and we plan to give it to them. They deserve to hear from both of us and we hope Anthony Brown will agree to frequent, substantive and real debates on the serious issues facing our state.
Interestingly enough, Hogan has agreed to three forums so far, sponsored by the Maryland Municipal League, Maryland Association of Counties, and WBFF-TV, which is Baltimore’s Fox affiliate. Personally I think it’s a good start. As there are over two dozen television stations in the Maryland and Washington, D.C. markets, it’s not realistic to think that each can sponsor its own debate but I think the idea of one each for Baltimore, Washington, Hagerstown, and Salisbury covers the state very well.
But the devil is in the details and in the political reality: Brown is about 15 points ahead – or so polls suggest – and has far more money to spend than Hogan does. So it’s in Brown’s best interest to let the air out of the ball and limit debate. He can afford to bombard the airwaves with commercials which define the message as he wishes to – look for a reworking of his record and lies about how bad things were under Bob Ehrlich, and the fewer debates and appearances where he can misspeak or make a gaffe, the better for him.
And there’s also the question of opening up the debate to other candidates. At this point there’s only a Libertarian candidate in the race besides Hogan and Brown, but it’s possible we could get a Green Party candidate or independent run. Do the minor party aspirants get a place at the table? Depending on who else decides to run, the answer from Brown may be “yes” – not only does it splinter the opposition to have a Libertarian in the race, it also leaves less airtime for Hogan to make good points or Brown to mess up. If a Green Party candidate comes in, though, the answer may become “no” because they tend to take from Democrats.
I suspect that Larry Hogan may be talking to some empty chairs at some of the venues where he’s accepted invitations. But even if he does have to accept Brown’s terms, the key will be in the moderation and questioning. Someone from the Washington Post or Baltimore Sun will be sure to pitch items in Brown’s wheelhouse, so there should be voices from other media outlets as well. I can think of a good conservative member of the “new media” who might have a question or two to ask.