Election 2019 Louisiana Governor (copy)

Eddie Rispone (left), Gov. John Bel Edwards and Republican Rep. Ralph Abraham participate in the first televised gubernatorial debate Sept. 19 in Baton Rouge.

While the Great Debates of 1858 — between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas — have become a part of American history and lore, the role of presidential debates in campaign years was a fairly unimportant one until the dawn of television and the 1960 debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. From 1976 to 1984, the League of Women Voters (LWV) was in charge of presidential debates, which were seen as a public service rather than a televised spectacle.

That changed in 1988, when the LWV pulled out of debates after what the organization said was unreasonable demands from the campaigns of Democrat Michael Dukakis and Republican George H.W. Bush. "It has become clear to us that the candidates' organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and honest answers to tough questions," LWV President Nancy M. Neuman said. "The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.” Her words proved prescient — and prophetic.

A Commission on Presidential Debates was then established, but many networks held their own debates before the primaries. Since then, the televised spectacle — positioned as a horse race between potential candidates and known for “zingers” and “gotcha moments” — has done little to advance public knowledge. Instead, many presidential debates have devolved into just another weapon in candidates’ arsenals. Last week’s Democratic presidential debate in Ohio, hosted by CNN and The New York Times and featuring 12 candidates fighting for airtime, was a prime example.

Thankfully, most Louisiana gubernatorial debates aren’t nearly as gaudy, but the three recent debates between Gov. John Bel Edwards, Republican mega-donor Eddie Rispone and the now-vanquished U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham didn’t shed much light on the challengers’ positions, either. The incumbent has a four-year record as governor and eight years as a state lawmaker. That record is fair game, and Edwards already has taken some hits on several fronts. Rispone, on the other hand, has largely gotten by simply by saying, “Trump, Trump, Trump.” His first runoff ad features the president — not Rispone.

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In the primary, Rispone ducked and dodged the issues to the point where he didn’t even answer a questionnaire from the nonpartisan Council for A Better Louisiana (CABL). In the runoff, he should be pressed at every turn — not just during debates — for specifics about how he intends to govern. In particular, he should tell voters how he will differ, substantively and fiscally, from former Gov. Bobby Jindal, who left Louisiana with a $2 billion deficit and a record of draconian cuts to health care and higher education.

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Several years ago, LaPolitics publisher Jeremy Alford (a former Gambit contributor) suggested the establishment of a Louisiana debate commission, which would set the rules and questions for gubernatorial debates. “There’s little doubt that Louisiana has a growing problem when it comes to televised debates for statewide candidates,” Alford wrote. “The Commission on Presidential Debates offers a ready roadmap for a way forward. It may not be the most elegant solution, but the alternative, which is doing nothing in response to two years of embarrassing moments, is a public disservice of the highest degree.”

We agree.

This is a commentary from Gambit, produced independently from reporters at the paper.