A matter of debate

Area Democratic incumbents don't feel the pressure to meet opponents.

Posted: October 22, 2012

If you love a good debate, better get your fill Monday night when President Obama and Mitt Romney exchange pleasantries for the third and final time.

Because if you live in Philadelphia, you'll have to wait till 2014, at least, to see your member of Congress trade verbal elbows with a challenger. All but assured of victory, Democratic incumbents Bob Brady, Chaka Fattah and Allyson Schwartz have scheduled no debates with their opponents.

"This is really a typical sort of strategy you would see in an incumbent that's in a fairly safe district, and is trying to keep any oxygen from his opponent," said Lara Brown, a Villanova political scientist.

So add ignoring the opposition to the hefty list of congressional incumbents' perks, along with name recognition, gerrymandered districts, and the campaign money that flows to power.

Maybe it's a quaint idea, the thought that no matter how lopsided the contest, sitting officials will stand opposite their challengers in a public forum and exchange ideas and criticism. Maybe that's just grade-school pablum that glosses over the reality of elections so influenced by money, street-level muscle, advertising, and more money.

But even if those gritty elements of politics are impossible to filter out, debating is such a simple slice of old-fashioned democracy to deliver. Clear out an hour between Labor Day and Nov. 6, wear something nice (for the gentlemen: blue or red tie only), don't forget your flag lapel pin, and say what you think. Even if the encounters lean toward theater and distortion, they at least force incumbents to square off against whatever challengers our messy process produces.

"It is the only opportunity that the public and the media get to see the two candidates side-by-side, measure their intelligence, measure their truthfulness, measure their wit, measure their ability to conduct themselves without any outside help," said John Featherman, the Republican challenging Brady.

Featherman pointed, for example, to the vice presidential debate, when Joe Biden, Paul Ryan, and all their quirks were on display for a nation.

He also conceded that part of the push for debates is to get attention for otherwise anonymous campaigns that have little chance of unseating popular Democrats.

"I know this is a quixotic run for me, but I'm not just going to let Bob Brady be anointed," Featherman said.

To grab the notice he so badly needs, Featherman has posted a YouTube campaign ad that features slinky dancers, cleavage - and a dog named Bob Brady. (For reasons unexplained, a topless woman appears behind carefully placed props. Featherman said he once studied Federico Fellini; presumably he focused on the director's soft-porn attack-ad oeuvre.)

Joe Rooney, running against Schwartz, showed up outside her office with an aide in a chicken suit, accusing the incumbent of being "too chicken" to debate.

Fattah's opponent, Robert Mansfield, said the congressman "isn't intelligent enough to debate anyone."

The Fattah campaign pointed out that Mansfield has yet to actually ask for a debate. Mansfield's retort: "We know what the answer is. Why waste my time?"

Democratic aides said the incumbents appear at many forums where they face questions from voters. On occasion, Schwartz has shown up at the same events as Rooney.

"The campaign always makes decisions on scheduling based on what's in the best interests of the congressman and the campaign," said Brady adviser Ken Smukler.

Schwartz's chief of staff, Rachel Magnuson, said, "It's clear that there's been opportunities for voters to understand the very stark differences" between the congresswoman and the GOP's Rooney.

But while the retirees at a senior center may pose smart questions on Medicare, these events are almost always tightly controlled, and it's doubtful that any visiting member of Congress would face the intensity of an opponent armed with rebuttals and opposition research.

Debates show whether candidates can keep their poise and how they think when confronted with the unexpected. In unguarded moments they might even reveal some unvarnished candor.

But the incumbents here don't seem to take the challengers very seriously - perhaps with justification, given Republicans' anemic presence in Philadelphia, where registered Democrats outnumber them by at least 6-1. It's not Democrats' job to help the opposition build name recognition.

But it seems undemocratic to have incumbents decide who is and who isn't a valid opponent. If the challengers are only attention-seeking clowns, a good debate should expose that.

Candidates, of course, are free to run campaigns as they choose. It would be nice to think their choices include a willingness to just once face their challengers. Or maybe that's just quaint.

Contact Jonathan Tamari

at jtamari@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @JonathanTamari. Read his blog, "Capitol Inq," at www.philly.com/CaptiolInq.

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