Maine State Senator Peter Mills

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A different debate format might enliven state campaigns by Jim Brunelle
Portland Press Herald | June 5, 2006

Maine's primary election campaign season has been so uninspiring this year that even candidates contending for party nominations to the state's top political posts have managed to put each other to sleep.

So-called "debates" featuring the three Republican contenders for governor and the two Democratic contenders for U.S. senator can be characterized as little more than joint campaign appearances.

The Republicans - David Emery, Peter Mills and Chandler Woodcock - spend most of their time at such sessions attacking the Democrat they hope to unseat in the fall, Gov. John Baldacci.

The Democrats - Jean Hay Bright and Eric Mehnert - seem content to concentrate their fire on Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe.

There's nothing wrong with that, of course. In fact, it is almost refreshing to find political candidates devoting more of their time to promoting their own political credentials than gratuitously beating up on each other.

In fact, it's probably good campaign strategy, since most of these candidates are not yet particularly well known to most voters. But it does make for dull debates.

Mills did try to stir up the pot a bit last week by challenging Baldacci to a public debate over the governor's controversial Dirigo health plan.

"Because of the importance of this issue, I propose that we discuss Dirigo in a statewide forum," Mills wrote the governor. "I am sure that a media outlet will be pleased to broadcast such a discussion."

Well, you can't blame a guy for trying, even if it is a campaign ploy that can be characterized as both too early and too late.

It's too early for Mills to be proposing a one-on-one encounter with an incumbent governor; the Cornville Republican hasn't won his party's nomination yet. The three-way primary election that will determine Baldacci's eventual GOP opponent - assuming the governor wins his own race against an unknown challenger, Christopher Miller - isn't until next week.

It's too late because no sitting governor would willingly engage in pre-primary debate with one of his harshest critics in the other party, particularly on a campaign issue of the other guy's choosing.

Voters are just going to have to wait until much later this year - at least until after Labor Day - before they can expect to be entertained or enlightened by anything resembling traditional election debates.

But Mills has introduced an interesting idea here. Why not have, not one, but a series of single-issue debates in which the candidates are forced to discuss in detail the most pressing issues facing the state?

There could be one debate on health insurance, another on tax reform, a third on environmental issues and so on, each lasting no more than a half-hour, say. That would be long enough to explore an issue more fully than in the usual format but short enough to maintain viewer interest.

The series could be topped off just prior to the election by a general, hour-long, multitopic debate of the sort we're all familiar with. Call it the wrapper-upper debate.

Under the single-subject approach, no candidate could get away with vague fulminations about, for example, the need for budget restraint. Each would be pressed into specifying precisely where substantial and meaningful cuts should be made and be forced to defend such proposals in terms of both fiscal and social responsibility.

This is not a new idea. The practice of restricting political debates to a single topic or category has been around since the Lincoln-Douglas debates in the mid-19th century. More recently, in televised presidential debates, the subject matter for one encounter might be confined to foreign affairs while another is reserved for domestic issues.

Sometimes this narrowing of subject matter in debates can lead to laughable extremes. A good example is when the late Sen. Ed Muskie was running for re-election in 1964.

His Republican opponent, U.S. Rep. Clifford McIntire, had criticized a Muskie vote against a proposed amendment to the Trade Expansion Act of 1962. The so-called "peril point" amendment would have allowed limiting foreign imports that might have a negative effect on domestic industries.

Muskie was infuriated over McIntire's charges and when it came time to negotiate the details of a public debate between them that fall, the senator stubbornly insisted on designating the single topic to be discussed.

The two ended up debating this lumpish question: "Did Sen. Muskie's vote on the 'peril point' amendment cause the closing of the Worumbo Woolen Mill?"

Understandably, we haven't had a single-subject political debate in Maine since.

Maybe it's time to try again.