EDITORIAL: What is, 'Hold a second debate'?
Considering how carefully the format, structure and trappings of high-stakes debates are usually hammered out, it’s surprising that Pennsylvania’s one and only matchup between incumbent Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and Republican challenger Scott Wagner went so surprisingly off the rails.
But the candidates have only themselves to blame.
Political faceoffs are customarily mapped out with a precision rivaling a space shuttle launch. Everything from the topic of questions, to the amount of time allotted to each candidate, to the venue, to the guest list comes in for scrutiny, negotiation and often, grudging compromise. Not least of which should be the moderator.
Somebody — or several somebodies — clearly mishandled the planning for the gubernatorial rivals’ Oct. 1 debate at the Hershey Lodge in Dauphin County. Or misunderstood the needs of such an event. How else to explain the selection of game show host Alex Trebek as moderator?
The longtime emcee of “Jeopardy!” is clearly intelligent, and good at what he does. But what he does is read brief questions off of cards to contestants. Unless Messers Wagner and Wolf had planned to stand behind colorful podiums and buzz in with correct answers — and considering how the debate turned out, that might have been preferable — an experienced moderator was called for.
Instead, Trebek took center stage — again, this is what he’s accustomed to doing — and monopolized the clock during what was already a dubiously brief debate. He spoke for more than 18 minutes of the 45-minute session — roughly 40 percent of the time.
To his credit, Trebek realized he had misplayed his role.
“I thought that as moderator, I was to provide a certain light-hearted approach while still being able to challenge the candidates on their record or positions,” he wrote in an apologetic statement. “I didn't realize I was to ask a simple question and then let the gentlemen go at each other.”
Again, where were the debate organizers and campaign reps?
There is, of course, still ample time to rectify the situation. With the election still a month out, a second, more informative debate could be — and should be — planned. One with a seasoned moderator. And one that lasts a little longer than an episode and a half of “Jeopardy!”.
Don’t hold your breath.
Sitting comfortably on a double-digit lead in most polls, incumbent Wolf is looking to run out the clock. He’s more likely to guest-host “Jeopardy!” himself than to agree to a second debate.
That may be politically understandable, but it does no good to Pennsylvania’s undecided voters, who got very little to help them off the fence out of the Oct. 1 forum.
So, unfortunately, the Great Game-Show Debate of 2018 may have to be filed under “lessons learned.”
The lesson: It doesn’t do much good to invite a celebrity moderator to draw interest to a debate if the moderator then also draws much of the spotlight.