Needed: Bay State political debates more in style of Lincoln-Douglas

If Massachusetts did not have another political debate until mid-1986, when the next governorship campaign will be in full swing, it might be too soon. Like many a good idea, this approach, intended to help voters sort out candidates and issues, has become so exploited, particularly this year, that it is questionable how much is accomplished.

As well-intentioned as sponsoring groups most certainly are, and as hard as they try to provide the best possible format, most of these programs, especially those involving contenders for US Senate and House seats, have proved to be little short of a waste of time for those involved.

Some candidates have, on occasion, been able to make important new points during so-called debates. Most of these programs, however, offer little more than old-fashioned candidates' nights in which the political hopefuls rattle off the same rhetoric time after time.

This does little to attract audiences, especially among those citizens who have not made up their minds how they will vote. Most of those on hand at debates are dedicated supporters of particular candidates. Their special role is to make their political favorites look popular through applause or other means designed to impress listeners.

Such outbursts of approbation, no matter how spontaneous, can be particularly misleading, especially when the so-called debate is being carried on television or radio and the lion's share of the audience is at home rather than present in the studio or hall.

As hard as most moderators try, preventing applause throughout such programs appears to be a near impossibility.

For this reason, the League of Women Voters and others staging future televised or broadcast debates might want to consider separating the on-hand audience from the candidates.

With the Sept. 18 primary over, the nominees for the November election will begin a new round of the seemingly endless debates for one public office or another. We can only hope that some of the upcoming candidate forums will shed more light on specific positions of opposing candidates on key issues.

The so-called debates between Republican senatorial candidates Elliot L. Richardson and Raymond Shamie might have been a lot more useful to voters, and certainly more entertaining, had their face-to-face appearances been devoted largely to a free-wheeling questioning of each other on what they viewed as matters of public concern.

Such a format could easily be structured to provide both men equal time, while also encouraging more complete answers through the built-in opportunity for pinning the opponent down with follow-up questions.

While it is perhaps unrealistic to anticipate that any of this year's cast of candidates - at least those running for the US Senate or House - would produce something even remotely approaching a Lincoln-Douglas-style debate, that certainly is a worthy model.

Part of the problem in staging candidate confrontations is what appears to be an obsession on the part of participants to project as ''Mr. Nice Guy,'' passing up whatever opportunities there might be to focus on the opposition's weaknesses or shortcomings.

This is not to suggest a lot of name-calling or accusation is needed or politically desirable.

At the same time, the purpose of debate is hardly well-served when candidates tiptoe around each other lest in the process some voters might be turned off.

What is important in a political debate is not only what is said, but also how it is said.

More than a few Bay State office seekers recall that fateful night during the 1962 Democratic senatorial campaign when state Attorney General Edward J. McCormack Jr., the apparent front-runner, faced political newcomer Edward Moore (Ted) Kennedy and sneered, ''If your name was Edward Moore, your candidacy would be a joke.''

To what extent that might have been a turning point in the campaign may never be known. Yet it was evident from audience reaction that there was a rallying to the support of the younger brother of President John F. Kennedy.

Mr. McCormack, under the circumstances, might have done better in the debate had he focused on his own background in both state and local elective posts and let his opponent's lack of experience speak for itself.

Attempting to ridicule the opposition candidate is at best risky, and even if successful it adds nothing but bitterness to a debate.

Political debates, however, need not be bland. Participating candidates should not let simplistic solutions by the opposition go unchallenged. That is what frequently happens, perhaps largely because of the traditional format requiring brief questions and brief answers as participants fly from subject to subject.

Why not an uncluttered debate - one perhaps with only the two candidates and a moderator, whose role might parallel that of a referee?

Subjects debated could be selected by a panel of political scientists, civic activists, journalists, and - most important - ordinary citizens from across the commonwealth.

To keep things lively the opposing candidates could be given a chance to spring a question or two on each other.

Having fewer issues, with each in sharper focus than seems to be possible with the one- or two-minute response time now generally allowed, would almost certainly be a greater service to the conscientious voter who wants to elect the best man or woman to the office.

In a debate, content rather than style or glibness is what should count. And the simpler the format the better.

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