The Debate Over Debates

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By Michael M. Shapiro

Congressman Rob Andrews, who is challenging Senator Frank Lautenberg in the Democratic Primary for the United States Senate in New Jersey, has demanded that Senator Lautenberg debate him seven times before the June Primary. Senator Lautenberg has accepted two debate invitations and declined all others, but has indicated he may agree to additional debates with Congressman Andrews before the Primary. Julie Roginsky, Mr. Lautenberg’s campaign spokesperson, has said that the Senator is maintaining a full Senate schedule, which precludes him from participating in many debates. Are both Congressman Andrews and Senator Lautenberg playing politics?

The Senator probably should agree to at least one more debate before the June Primary, but the Congressman’s calls for many debates are inappropriate. When Senator Lautenberg was running against Republican Millicent Fenwick for the same Senate seat, he challenged her to a debate in each of New Jersey’s 21 counties. She agreed to five debates, but the Senator said that was insufficient and accused Ms. Fenwick of not being energetic enough, at the age of 72, to represent the State. However, the Lautenberg-Fenwick race was a general election evolving over many months, while the Lautenberg-Andrews race is a Primary election run over a few weeks. While debates are important and should be undertaken in both primary and general elections, having many debates in a Primary that lasts a few weeks is overreaching and would conceivably benefit only Congressman Andrews.

Having lost the Party line in the counties with the largest Democratic populations and facing a Senator with high name recognition, Andrews believes that debates are the golden ticket for him: they will enable him to raise his name recognition without spending a dime, demonstrate to voters the vast difference in age between the two candidates, and should Lautenberg stumble in any of the debates, Andrews can use the incident to paint Lautenberg as too old and feeble to remain in the Senate. Of course, the fact that Congressman Andrews is a pre-eminent debater in the House of Representatives can only help the Congressman, as well.

Senator Lautenberg, on the other hand, has nothing to gain from debates with the Congressman. He has all of the advantages of incumbency and the debates provide an avenue for the Congressman to level the playing field. In addition, Lautenberg has never been known for his eloquence or public speaking skills. As such, even a typical Lautenbergesque performance will be viewed by voters as that of an aging politician who should be retired.

If three debates are held between now and the Primary, voters will be able to see and hear from both candidates. Congressman Andrews will get his name recognition and the opportunity to score points. The Senator will be able to show he is not afraid of debating the Congressman and is up for the challenge. My guess is that Senator Lautenberg will agree to three debates, with his campaign spinning the pre-debate period regarding the Congressman’s debating prowess. At the same time, the Congressman will downplay his past debating performances. In the end, Mr. Andrews will get his name recognition but the debates will be viewed as a draw, with the tie going in Senator Lautenberg’s favor, thus sealing his Primary victory.

Michael M. Shapiro, founder of ShapTalk.com, is an attorney who resides in New Providence. He currently serves as the editor of The Alternative Press, www.thealternativepress.com Contact Mike at mike@shaptalk.com.


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