After hearing that the so-called gubernatorial debate between incumbent Tom Wolf and challenger Scott Wagner was in fact better described as the Alex Trebek show — dominated not by questions to the candidates but by monologues by the Jeopardy! game-show host — we were hopeful that Gov. Wolf, who has insisted this would be the only debate he'd participate in, would change his mind and agree to a debate with more substance.
After all, according to those viewing, the Trebek show left less than 20 minutes for the candidates to respond to questions or issues.
Given the issues facing the commonwealth — taxes, education, job decline, as well as a stifling partisanship — a robust debate on how each candidate would approach the job of governing is more important than ever.
And that's why we're disappointed that Wolf has not changed his mind despite the Trebek disaster. As of Tuesday, his campaign confirmed he will be doing no more debates.
Maybe political strategists would agree that Wolf, who holds a double-digit lead in the polls over Wagner, can only erode his lead by debating his rival. But doesn't leadership require the recognition that strategy alone isn't enough? Leading a state carries a heavy responsibility, not just to make decisions that will affect many people, but to keep them informed and enlightened. The governor should also consider that public debate shows by example that he is not afraid of being challenged.
There is undoubtedly a large body of research on the impact and importance of political debates in informing the voting public on where candidates stand on issues. We actually thought of referencing some but then realized we don't need academic research to document the importance of informing voters and having candidates defend their positions.
We live in a time where worries about the polarizing aspect of where and how people get their information, how many people seek out sources that will confirm their own biases rather than remaining open to new information, and the corrupting influence of money driving political debate are all factors that make face-to-face debate more critical than ever. This November, of the 36 states electing a governor, an informal survey shows that most have more than one debate. Colorado and Connecticut have scheduled five; Iowa has three scheduled.
It's unfortunate that the state Chamber of Business and Industry thought a game-show host would be a wise choice to moderate the only gubernatorial debate scheduled before November's election. If they thought they needed a celebrity for people to tune in to what the candidates had to say, they seriously underestimated people's interest in being informed. If they were trying to make this debate entertaining, Trebek's performance failed at that.
That's why we urge Gov. Wolf to reconsider and agree to further debate. (Our offer to sponsor a debate remains.) Thanks to Trebek, the gubernatorial race has sunk to a new low. It wouldn't be that hard to pull it up off the ground and try to make it stand with some dignity.