Forum-shy incumbents do disservice to democracy

Spokesman-Review Editorial Board
May 4, 2010

Idaho voters may be feeling like Goldilocks after hearing the explanations some candidates have given for participating or not participating in an upcoming series of televised debates.

Gov. Butch Otter says the format agreed to by the League of Women Voters and other independent sponsors is too exclusive. U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo believes it's too inclusive. But 2nd District Congressman Mike Simpson seems to find the structure just right. Next Sunday, he'll be on Idaho Public Television debating Republican challengers Chick Heileson and Russ Mathews.

Otter and Crapo, however, are opting out of the debates.

Good for Simpson. Bad for Otter and Crapo.

True to the value a democratic society places on an informed electorate, Simpson is ready to share the stage with his challengers, to defend his record and to explain his beliefs in an open forum. That serves Republican voters who have until the May 25 primary election to decide who, among the contestants on the ballot, best represent Republican thinking about pressing public issues.

Unfortunately, not all candidates made those considerations their highest priority.

Admittedly, it's challenging to assemble the appropriate collection of voices that belong in any given debate. Which are valid, which frivolous? The League of Women Voters has been at this business for a long time, and we think they've settled on a reasonable set of criteria for identifying the candidates who are serious enough about the race to do more than just file for office.

To warrant a debate invitation, a candidate has to have a staff (whether paid or volunteer), have produced campaign literature that explains positions, and have made at least two campaign appearances 250 miles or farther apart. There is no campaign-funding requirement, as you might expect from an organization known for its concerns about money's influence in politics.

Those requirements don't justify the contrasting reasons Otter and Crapo have given for staying home. However, as front-runners in their respective races, the two know that participating in the debate will make them the most conspicuous targets, which could hurt in the general election.

Simpson faces that risk, too, but it didn't interfere with his respect for the voters' need to examine and compare all the candidates.

Originally posted at

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