I have watched many unsatisfying political debates over the years, but I have never witnessed the kind of journalistic malpractice that WDSU and its moderator, Scott Walker, served to Louisiana voters on Thursday night.
Viewers of the New Orleans TV station and those in a few other markets around the state (and many who could only watch on the internet) were served an often-pointless, rambling discussion of issues that only barely concern Louisiana – or at least pale in comparison to the vital issues that most voters care about.
Thursday night’s showdown was the only time before the Oct. 24 primary that Sen. David Vitter agreed to join Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, state Rep. John Bel Edwards and Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle in a televised debate in which the questions were not submitted in advance. That meant this high-stakes meeting of the four major candidates had the potential for a serious, illuminating discussion about the state’s future.
Instead, what we got were a raft of pointless questions to which the candidates had too little time to respond, especially because two other minor candidates were inexplicably invited to participate. With six candidates on stage, WDSU squandered precious airtime that could have gone to one of the men who will actually become our governor next January.
For the first 10 minutes of the hour-long debate, the moderator invited the candidates to discuss Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk of court who was jailed briefly for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. In Louisiana, that’s now a moot issue. Every parish is issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Why we needed a lengthy discussion about this issue was baffling, given the debate’s severe time restraints.
Then, the moderator led the candidates into another pointless discussion, this one about gun control. Perhaps mentioning the issue was appropriate given the tragic events of the day in Oregon, but guns is an issue on which the candidates have the same position. It made no sense to waste time on that issue.
Then, the candidates spent another five or so minutes discussing whether to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood. Finally, we had an issue of some real concern to Louisiana voters – and were shown some true differences of opinion among the candidates. Edwards was the only candidate who supported allowing the organization to continue providing contraception and preventative health care services to the state’s low-income residents.
The Planned Parenthood debate was also the first issue in the debate that provoked real sparks. Even though they all say they are strongly anti-abortion, Vitter went after Edwards on the issue because he supported President Barack Obama’s election and attacked Dardenne, who he accused of casting pro-abortion votes six times during his years in the state legislator. Dardenne responded that those votes were about stem cell research, not abortion. And, for good measure, he called Vitter “desperate Dave” and said, “yes,” when asked if he was calling Vitter a liar.
By now, we were almost 30 minutes into the debate and I was encouraged that finally Walker might get around to asking the candidates about their plans to balance the state’s budget. Perhaps he would lead them in a discussion about how they will restore funding to the state’s higher education system. Maybe, I thought, we’d have a fruitful discussion about expanding Medicaid or, more broadly, what to do about our state’s scandalous poverty rate. Perhaps, Walker would invite them to tell us their plans for bringing more jobs to the state.
So, with only 30 minutes left in the last televised statewide debate, where did the moderator now take the discussion? Into a lengthy discussion about whether the state should legalize marijuana.
Give Vitter credit for using the question to try to turn the issue into a debate about the state’s incarceration rate. “We warehouse way too many non-violent criminals in Louisiana,” Vitter correctly noted. But that was far too relevant an issue for this debate, which quickly returned to the question of legalizing weed.
With time running out, ever so briefly the moderator mentioned the budget – but only in the context of whether we should tax marijuana to help balance the state’s books! Then, they were off from weed and into weeds of Common Core – another issue that is mostly moot, given the Legislature’s approval of a compromise on the contentious issue in the 2015 session.
With time running out and only enough minutes for a “lightning round” of questions, Walker finally invited the candidates to summarize their higher education reform plans – in 15 seconds. He might as well have asked them if they wanted to add anything else about marijuana.
If the stakes weren’t so high, this debate might have been a hilarious show (at times, it reminded me of a “Saturday Night Live” skit). But the stakes are very high. There are so many issues of monumental importance to the state that we did not have the luxury of wasting time on peripheral issues like Kim Davis and marijuana.
I know it wasn’t WDSU’s fault that Vitter won’t attend debates without first approving the questions. Given that fact, however, those precious 60 minutes were ones that should not have been wasted on anything other than eliciting from the candidates specifics about their plans for getting Louisiana out of the ditch.
What a disservice to the voters who deserve better.