There is an episode of the Aaron Sorkin series, “The West Wing,” where candidates for president of the United States stand on a debate stage and, in the interest of the republic, decide to throw out all the phony, stifling, pointless rules they had agreed upon and have an old-fashioned conversation with each other about the future direction of the country.
No time limits. No guidelines regarding follow ups and direct engagement. Just the two candidates and a moderator who keeps them on track in good faith. Inspiring, high-minded rhetoric about America followed.
Oh, for life to imitate fiction.
At the first gubernatorial debate of this cycle Wednesday morning, Eliot Cutler, Paul LePage and Mike Michaud strode confidently onto the stage in the ballroom of the Holiday Inn By the Bay in Portland and proceeded to dance a very choreographed dance with each other.
The rules for this debate were simple: a moderator asked a question, and the three candidates each had an opportunity to answer. No follow-ups or rebuttals. No direct engagement. Just question and answer, then moving on.
I understand the impulse, of course. There are so many things to talk about that getting mired down on any issue by the constant back and forth between candidates would be problematic. Mainers deserved to hear from all the candidates on a variety of issues, and no one wants a debate to devolve into a bickering mess. But I still think in this situation, it would have been nice to see a different setup.
Why? Because the candidates have more clear and undeniable lines of difference between them than any gubernatorial candidates you are ever likely to see in your lifetime. Because the moderator, Chris Hall, was charming and effective, and deftly able to manage the candidates and could thus have kept things on track. And because the questions were timely and got to the very heart of the issues facing Mainers this November.
Unfortunately, the lack of allowed interaction between the candidates prevented what could have been very illuminating exchanges. When LePage discussed the closing of the Verso paper mill in Bucksport, for instance, he directly challenged Cutler on his scheme to use state resources to purchase the mill, and he took a swipe at Michaud for obstructing the growth of natural gas in Maine.
Cutler should have been allowed to defend and explain his plan to purchase the mill with tax dollars, and LePage should have been allowed to follow up and ask him how he would pay for such a plan, or why it is appropriate for the Maine government to subsidize a failing business.
Likewise, Michaud should have had the opportunity to respond and explain why he has been standing in the way of an effort to lower Maine’s energy costs, and LePage should have been able to engage with him and take him to task for some of his proposals that would dramatically increase the cost of energy.
When Cutler said to Michaud, “You’ve worked across a lot of aisles, but you have never created a single job,” Michaud should have been allowed to press Cutler on how many jobs he created in his career. That could have been a fun exchange.
And speaking of those aisles, when Michaud declared his long history of “working across the aisle” and “getting things done”, both Cutler and LePage should have been able to then ask him what he has actually accomplished in Washington while collecting $2 million in salary. His inability to answer that simple follow-up question would have been rather illuminating to the voters listening.
When Cutler said he would like to raise your taxes — but only seasonally, of course — to raise the revenue necessary to fund his spending priorities in Augusta, LePage and Michaud should have been able to cross-examine him, to fully explore just how painful such a tax hike would be to people who are struggling to get by.
And of course, when Michaud bizarrely claimed that raising the minimum wage and expanding Medicaid would create thousands of jobs and lead to an economic renaissance, all 600 people in attendance should have been allowed to ask him if he was serious.
Despite these general flaws, the debate was still informative, and it still had its fireworks. The candidates frequently made use of their time to respond to each other in previous questions, and there was no shortage of contrasts being drawn.
As we watch the debates that are still upcoming, I hope that at least some of them facilitate interaction among the candidates and don’t allow the candidates to turn their remarks into glorified stump speeches.