A Debate Debate in a Tennessee Congressional District

In Tennessee’s 4th Congressional District, incumbent Republican Rep. Scott DesJarlais is refusing to debate his Democratic opponent Eric Stewart on the (ostensible) grounds that Stewart isn’t running enough of an issues campaign to justify meeting on the same stage. DesJarlais’ campaign manager had this to say:

“Eric has yet to release a meaningful platform of any sort, even on his own website, and has placed the debate cart before the platform horse. We simply challenged him to actually articulate where he stands on key issues like taxes, energy, spending, the definition of marriage, and who he will be voting for in the presidential election.”

For an office holder with the advantage of incumbency, a large campaign finance edge and a reputation for articulateness that falls somewhere short of Aristotelian, ducking debates is hardly a novel or startling strategic move. Justifying the dodge as a response to an opponent’s supposedly thin platform is, I suppose, as good a way as any to avoid saying “I don’t want to debate him because it will only hurt me and I can win without doing it so piss off.”

Even so, the DesJarlais spokesman’s “even on his own website” charge is sufficiently concrete that it invites a little followup. Is it the case that Stewart fails to articulate positions on fundamental issues? The short answer is that the DesJarlais campaign claim is pretty much valid.

On the issues Stewart’s website is sketchy and shallow. It has only two issue categories. The first, on jobs and the economy, makes a few vague statements about business tax credits, overseas hiring by government contractors, ending “tax breaks to billionaires and big corporations” and rebuilding infrastructure, but offers no specific ideas or proposals. The other category, Social Security and Medicare, does assert that Stewart will “fight against any effort to privatize Social Security and work to defeat any legislation that tries to turn Medicare into a voucher program,” which does qualify as an issue-oriented pledge to oppose aspects of the so-called Ryan plan.

To be fair, DesJarlais’ website isn’t much more detailed, although it does cover more issues with its own half-baked pablum (healthcare, energy, immigration, abortion, marriage rights, the second amendment), and of course DesJarlais has a voting record in Congress, such as it is.

But is this unfair to Stewart? Do challengers commonly run issue-free campaigns, focusing exclusively on their incumbent-opponents’ records? For perspective I picked out a contested race with a similar dynamic: a serious Democratic challenger facing a freshman Republican incumbent. In Illinois’ 8th Congressional District, Republican Rep. Joe Walsh faces a challenge from Democrat Tammy Duckworth in a closely watched contest. And frankly, the issues page of the Duckworth campaign website makes Eric Stewart’s look minimalist in comparison. Duckworth offers separate pages with policy statements not just on the economy and entitlement programs as Stewart does, but also on fiscal policy, education, energy, national defense, Afghanistan, Israel, civil rights (including women’s rights and workers’ rights), and veteran’s issues. And her statements on most of these issues are quite specific — identifying concrete priorities, and naming bills and programs she supports and opposes.

Stewart doesn’t help himself with this response to the incumbent’s debate avoidance: “Scott DesJarlais wants to talk about votes I might cast in the future. I want to talk about votes he’s cast in the past.” Yes, we get it, you are trying to unseat an incumbent by directing voter attention to his views and votes — that’s the challenger’s task. But to suggest that “votes I might cast in the future” are somehow a distraction from the real business of a political campaign is daft.

None of this is to excuse DesJarlais’ lame efforts to avoid debates. There is no good reason to not debate a legitimate major party opponent. But his stated reason for the dodge — that his opponent has yet to articulate serious positions on many issues — does appear to have some truth to it. Of course, that’s precisely a reason to have a debate, not a justification for avoiding one.

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.

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