By Cam Savage
In 2008, I played a small role in giving birth to the Indiana Debate Commission, so I feel somewhat entitled and compelled to suggest it needs a serious overhaul.
Indiana’s Debate Commission is modeled on the Commission on Presidential Debates that has successfully sponsored and produced each of the presidential debates since 1988.
If you are running for an office other than president in one of the 49 states that are not Indiana, debates work like this. The underdog candidate in the race challenges her opponent to a ridiculously large number of debates with terms the front-runner will reject or ignore either because the terms are so egregiously unfair that they would be a fool to accept them.
Cam Savage is a principal at Limestone Strategies and a veteran of numerous Republican campaigns.
The challenger then will accuse the frontrunner of “dodging” the challenger and thereby insulting the public and the democratic process. Press releases abound, outrage is feigned and the memories of both Lincoln and Douglas are exalted. Occasionally some intern dresses up like a chicken. It isn’t as fun as it sounds.
By 2008, already a campaign veteran, I knew one irrefutable truth; Republicans always lose the “debate about debates.” I honestly believed, and still believe, that in the back-and-forth bickering of debate negotiations that Republicans get a raw deal.
So when the organizers of an Indiana Debate Commission came to me in my role as communications director for Gov. Mitch Daniels’ campaign and shared their plan for a commission modeled on the presidential system, they found a sympathetic ear.
The brilliance of the debate commission’s plan was its simplicity. They wanted three debates, they’d choose the locations and they’d make the audio and video available to any media outlet that wanted to broadcast it. This was a dream come true. I’d spent countless hours negotiating back and forth, not just with the opposing campaigns, but with potential sponsors and venues, haggling over dates, times, moderators, and arcane details about whether candidates could use notes or how many seconds candidates would get for each rebuttal.
The debate commission now offered to put an end to all that nonsense. There would be no “debate” about the debates.
I encouraged the governor’s campaign manager Eric Holcomb to accede to the proposal. He did. Gov. Daniels privately told him he was the “worst debate negotiator ever.” Eric took the heat and never even tried to pin the idea on me. If he hadn’t, there would be no commission today.
Which brings us to today, and the glaring need to reform the Indiana Debate Commission. In 2012, the commission sponsored six debates. In those six debates, one of which became rather newsworthy, there were several obvious problems.
First, the commission needs stronger moderators. Because the commission’s members come from various media outlets, the commission tends to prefer non-working or retired journalists over reporters who are actively covering the campaigns. That’s a problem for lots of reasons, not the least of which is that the retired journalists are out of practice. The most memorable moment of the 2012 debates came during an extremely awkward follow-up question during what was supposed to be a “lightning round” of questions. If that debate had been better moderated, Joe Donnelly wouldn’t be a senator today. I’m not making excuses for my candidate; re-watch it, you’ll agree.
Second, the appeal of the commission is that campaigns don’t have to haggle with each other and debate organizers about details large and small. But that pendulum has swung too far away from the campaigns. In 2012, the campaigns had almost no input at all, and weren’t treated as partners by the commission leadership. And when one special interest group snatched up nearly all of the tickets for a debate in New Albany, the debate commission didn’t have any remedy. The actions of one union made it impossible for anyone else to attend the debate.
The obvious solution here is to put a few select partisans on the commission to look out for the interests of the campaigns. They don’t have to be representatives of the campaigns, but at least they should be people who have been a part of campaigns and understand debates from the candidate’s point of view. That’s how it works at the presidential level.
Indiana is lucky to have a debate commission and it’s a healthy thing for our democracy. But if the commission is going to survive as the sole organizer of debates, it’s going to have to start earning its unique status.
Cam Savage is a principal at Limestone Strategies and a veteran of numerous Republican campaigns and the National Republican Senatorial Committee. He is a graduate of Franklin College. He can be reached at Cam@limestone-strategies.com.
This is a corrected version of the column. Due to an editor’s error, the original post had an incorrect number. TheStatehouseFile.com regrets the mistake.