There’s a delicious irony to Gov. Bobby Jindal’s increasingly desperate pleas to be included in the next Republican presidential debate, set for next Wednesday on CNBC.
Back when he was trying to get elected governor, Jindal made a point of debating his frustrated opponents as little as possible.
There’s a simple reason for this. In 2007, Jindal was far and away the front-runner. And sadly, minimizing unscripted showdowns has evolved into standard strategy for candidates who think they have little to gain but perhaps something to lose — even when those candidates are perfectly able to hold their own in such settings.
We’re seeing it on the Democratic side of the presidential ledger, where little-known former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley has accused party insiders of limiting the number of debates for the benefit of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Clinton finally appeared on CNN alongside her four rivals last week and did just fine, but the event also offered O’Malley, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, former U.S. Sen. Jim Webb and even poor, out-of-his-depth former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee some big-time exposure and an opportunity to appear as Clinton’s equal in stature.
We’re seeing a variation on the theme among Republicans, where the major candidates are happy to debate, but there are so many of them that minor contenders such as Jindal have been shunted to the so-called kids’ table. Jindal hasn’t done much to help his cause otherwise, but it’s entirely possible that his inability to make his case — or simply appear on the same stage as his better-polling competitors — has contributed to his dreadfully miniscule fundraising totals and poll numbers.
And we’re seeing it in the race to replace Jindal as governor. U.S. Sen. David Vitter is following Jindal’s 2007 strategy of minimizing exposure and trying to stay above the fray. His opponents, Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and state Rep. John Bel Edwards, meanwhile, are as aggravated now as Walter Boasso, Foster Campbell and John Georges were back then.
In general, the case for pursuing such a strategy boils down to a few things. When a leading candidate appears alongside his or her opponents, it creates the appearance of a more level playing field. There’s a chance that the candidate might be forced to take a more specific position than the campaign would like, or make a major gaffe. There’s also the prospect of being asked to address some embarrassing aspect of his or her past — obviously a particular concern for Vitter, what with his 2007 prostitution scandal on many minds.
Tension among this year’s gubernatorial candidates was easy to spot during and after last week’s debate at Louisiana Tech in Ruston, just the second and final televised forum that Vitter has deigned to attend (the others agreed to participate in several without him, including two during this final week before Saturday’s primary).
The first, hosted by WDSU in New Orleans, was widely panned for focusing on hot-button national topics and bypassing the major issues facing the state. Last week’s, which was sponsored by a consortium of TV stations, was something of an improvement in that it zeroed in on state issues. But because panelists didn’t ask follow-up questions, the candidates’ answers were less specific and detailed than those at some of the Vitter-less debates.
But the real point of contention was the debate’s setup. There was no audience, and no journalists other than questioners were allowed in the room.
Afterward, Angelle, Dardenne and Edwards met with reporters, but Vitter skipped out. All three accused Vitter of dictating the terms of his appearances, and called his reluctance to appear in an uncontrolled setting, and to submit himself to questions, disturbing. They’ve got a point.
They’re also right that all of this doesn’t bode well for the future. If a candidate doesn’t want to talk to the voters and the press during the campaign, what does that say about how he’d behave if elected?
It’s a perfectly reasonable question to ask — and yet one more that Vitter and those who pursue this type of strategy don’t want to answer.
Stephanie Grace can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.