What scares incumbents? A hard question.

Gov. Mark Dayton was a no-show at Tuesday’s Farmfest gubernatorial debate.

Incumbent Sen. Al Franken showed up at yesterday’s Senate debate, but he, too, is refusing some traditional debates, including the MPR News State Fair debate, which would have been the first debate after next week’s Republican primary. It prompted a rebuke from the Rochester Post Bulletin.

Why are the people who hold office so afraid of being questioned?

Blois Olson, the political strategist who’s run a campaign or two in his day, provides one answer in his excellent Morning Take newsletter today:

Debates have always been risky for candidates, but in no year in memory has the concept of a debate elicited such fear in candidates of the two major parties.

First Sen. Al Franken bailed on MPR at the Fair, then Gov. Mark Dayton did the same. This week, Gov. Mark Dayton avoided a candidate “panel” at FarmFest, but yesterday Sen. Al Franken and his likely challenger Mike McFadden sat side-by-side at Farmfest. Then late yesterday afternoon, via email from a representative of Kurt Zellers campaign sent an email to WCCO Radio withdrawing from the debate for both the Zellers and Scott Honour’s campaign.

Yes, the two campaigns had coordinated the withdrawal, they say because GOP endorsed candidate Jeff Johnson wasn’t going to be there. However, where else could candidates talk to more voters for free 5 days before the most hotly contested primary in modern GOP history?

The coordination suggests that the campaigns are all concerned about Johnson’s perceived momentum. But the trail of debate dismissals by candidates of both parties suggests something more troubling.

Candidates have become so handled and fearful of gaffe’s or tough questions that they hide behind ads and media statements. In the age of viral videos, and Twitter blow-ups controlling everything possible is the major focus of the modern campaign.

The problem is that it doesn’t represent leadership, but rather a dangerous desire to be safe and scripted at every turn. Who or what suffers? Voters and democracy. If authenticity was the most common trait of winning candidates for the last 15 years, the new winning for a winning candidate might be accessibility. After all, if candidates are afraid of people or controversy to avoid a forum at the Minnesota State Fair, or a gaffe that goes viral on social media, then democracy is in major trouble, and so is the quality of the candidates and elected officials the major parties are producing.

  • Paul Weimer

    Cynically, yeah, an incumbent is afraid of anything that could risk their status.

    That goes for debates, policy positions…everything.

    Once you have the office, the office changes to the effort of keeping the job. Regardless of political party, it seems. Alas.

  • Flip side to this: politicians are so afraid to make a mistake, they’re not saying anything useful in a debate anyway. So does it matter?

    • I think this, too, is mostly a myth, this idea that candidates aren’t saying anything of value. I think a good moderator with the ability to make candidates answer questions is invaluable, of course. I’m going to GUESS that had there been a debate, Kerri Miller would be one of the ones asking questions.

      Here in studio debates with Dayton and Emmer four years ago were terrific and they provided a really valuable insight into the thinking of the candidate.

      • Ralphy

        It’s not the question, it’s the answer. On one hand, no matter the question, the candidate sticks to the same scripted, tested and rehearsed talking points. On the other hand, any deviation from those chosen words can and will be held against the candidate, replayed in ads and on social media with the intention of that momentary lapse becoming the candidate’s defining image in the voters’ minds. The format of Q and A debates are of little benefit to candidates or voters. A policy presentation addressing key issues with cross examination by the moderator and the opponent would be much more valuable.

        • That’s why followups by moderator are important. And a moderator who doesn’t get pushed around. Martha Raddatz showed us that in 2012.

          • I agree with you, Bob. I think they’re important. But I also wonder how many debates are too many.

          • One of the problems is news orgs and public serv orgs gave FAR too much power to the campaigns to dictate debate formats, which allowed them to merely recite stump speeches. The League of Women Voters-style format is an archaic, awful format in 2014.

    • kevinfromminneapolis

      The great line from The West Wing applies, “It’s not a debate, it’s a joint press conference.”

  • kevinfromminneapolis

    Nonsense. I can’t explain why Franken and Dayton would pull out of MPR debates at the State Fair at a time when they’d both be down to one opponent. That’s a mystery. I don’t blame the governor (count how many times I’ve ever said that!) for not wanting to subject himself to a 4 on 1 beating at Farmfest and if all the candidates can’t be there for a primary debate there’s no point having one. But let’s all overreact.

  • Jack Ungerleider

    I can understand why Franken and Dayton would pull out of the MPR State Fair debate. Having to answer questions again about their past as opposed to their records in office. As an incumbent that should be the major focus.

    With all due respect, the MPR State Fair debate is an uncontrolled environment. Even if the opponent doesn’t bring up Saturday Night Live or closing a senate office, someone in the crowd might. At this point I don’t think those are “hard” questions they are a distraction.

    • This is mostly a myth. Consider the questions that were asked in the 2008 Senate debates:

      Q: How will current financial rescue plan help Main St., America?

      Q: The bailout may solve the credit freeze but it’s unlikely to keep more workers from losing their jobs. What specific policies would you support to create jobs?

      Q:: Do you favor developing ethanol from corn, given the problems with food production?

      Q:Do you have a goal for reducing dependence on foreign oil? If so, how much and by when, and how would you achieve it?

      Q: What are some of the foreign affairs issues we’re not focusing on now and what could become important in the next several years?

      Q: Under what scenario would you support pre-emptive military action?

      Q: How will you help Minnesotans be able to afford college?

      Q: What about nasty ads?

      Q: What is your position on the DM&E railroad expansion (DM&E coal project)?

      Q: What steps would you take to eliminate the federal budget deficit?

      • Q: Boxers or briefs?

      • Jack Ungerleider

        It might be myth, but people are afraid of many myths.

    • kevinfromminneapolis

      “Having to answer questions again about their past as opposed to their records in office.”

      That’s illogical.

  • Jim G

    I was at the Emmer, Dayton, Horner Governor Candidate State Fair Debate It was a very public and uncontrolled event with opportunities for mischief making for those so inclined. I noticed choreographed responses from the Emmer supporters. When Dayton was speaking there were hoots and hollers, followed by boos and derisive laughter that were not repeated when Emmer or Horner were speaking. I can understand Governor Dayton skipping this debate when the opposing candidates’ supporters use intimidation and distraction tactics. It was while watching this debate that I learned the extent of hatred and incivility in our current political discourse.

  • Dave

    It seems to me that Franken (and to a lesser extent Dayton) know that they just need to keep their heads down right now. Franken will almost certainly be re-elected, and I think Dayton has a good shot. Debates or hard questions can probably only hurt them at this point. Welcome to politics.