Debates, Tax Rates and Candidate Weights

Perhaps, it is apropos that tonight’s gubernatorial debate will not be available on live television. With the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies engaged in post-season play, baseball is likely to be a larger draw in the two media markets that dominate the Garden State.

But there’s more to this story. It’s not just the baseball post-season that is responsible for a lack of interest in the debate.

Political debates — not just in New Jersey but all over — have become too scripted and predictable. Candidates have their message points. We’ve heard them before and we’ll hear them again — even if they bear little relation to the questions they are answering.

And the truth is the campaign debates to which we have become accustomed tell us little about a candidate’s ability to govern.

“I can’t see the connection, I can’t see it,” President George H. W. Bush lamented in an interview for a PBS project on debates. “I mean, you can have a good president that might not be the best in the top of his game in a staged debate. But maybe he can do it quietly, maybe he can do it without having a hair part and a make-up just right and a smile at the right time. Maybe he can do it with getting good people around you and giving them credit and trying to do a quiet and decent job for your country. And so I don’t see the connection, frankly.”

Bush’s one-time debate rival, President Bill Clinton, made a somewhat similar observation in his PBS interview, although he did acknowledge that the debates provide some guidance for voters: “They don’t test all the skills. They don’t really show, you know, whether you’re a good decision maker, although they show whether you can understand a situation in a hurry and respond to it, particularly if there’s a surprise question or, you know, a surprise development in the kind of the chemistry of the players. They don’t show whether you’re good at putting together a team and, you know, carrying out a plan, but they do give people a feel for what kind of leader the debater would be, how much the person knows, and how they — generally how they approach the whole idea of being president.”

Regardless of how well they serve the electorate, debates have had their share of dramatic moments, some of which were critical to the fates of the candidates involved – John Kennedy’s photogenic television appearance in contrast to Richard Nixon and his five o-clock shadow, Ronald Reagan’s ability to use a witty response to dismiss questions about his age, Michael Dukakis’ reply to a question about whether he would favor the death penalty if his wife was raped and murdered.

Will here be a game-changing moment this campaign season? It’s quite possible, but the odds of finding one will be much greater at the baseball contests in New York and Philadelphia.

A Familiar Ring

Some of the comments made by GOP gubernatorial candidate Chris Christie and Kim Guadagno, his lieutenant governor running mate, during New Jersey’s recent debates had a familiar ring. In response to questions about how they would tackle the fiscal issues confronting New Jersey, both promised to scrutinize the state budget in search of savings.

“We will get down to Trenton and we will get into that budget and we will work cooperatively with the Legislature and we will make sure we bring the budget down and we will cut it significantly,” Christie said at the first gubernatorial debate on October 1.

“When we get to Trenton in January, Chris and I, we are going to start with the bottom of the budget and work our way up,” Guadagno said during the lieutenant governor debate on October 8. “We’re going to send two former federal corruption prosecutors to Trenton. We’re going to turn the lights on and turn over every rock until we find every dollar of wasteful spending.”

I took a look back at some old news stories and I found some very similar sounding statements, among them:

“During these next months we will be setting forth individual cases of waste and mismanagement so that the citizens of the state of New Jersey will understand how government was or was not properly operated.”

“The goal today is to provide a critical, exhaustive review of all government services to determine where we can cut waste and mismanagement.”

These two statements were made by then-Governor James McGreevey a few days after he took office in 2002 and created the Budget Efficiency Savings Team, more commonly known by its acronym — the BEST Commission.  The 21-member panel, comprised of fiscal and management experts, was charged with identifying examples of waste and mismanagement in state government. As I recall, the commission did identify a few egregious examples – a building the state was leasing, but not using, and about $15 million to $20 million in savings that could be realized by negotiating better contracts and reducing state workers’ use of toll-free phone lines.

Should the Christie-Guadagno ticket win in November, they may very well find some similar items.  But in all likelihood, they also will discover the same thing the BEST Commission did in 2002: Those items will generate headlines, but they will not amount to a significant percentage of savings in a budget as large as New Jersey’s.

A Final Word on Weight

Finally, the issue of Chris Christie’s weight already has received much more attention than is warranted, but I would like to note that I made a few observations on this subject after the June primary when I offered a series of suggestions for the two winning candidates.  The last item on my list for Christie was this:

“Start a physical fitness routine and tell the world about it. A candidate’s physique has nothing to do with his or her ability to govern, but we do live in a visual age and people do make comments on individuals’ appearances – especially when those individuals are in the public spotlight. Why not have some fun with it and get some added attention from the public and the press as you work to shed a few pounds before Election Day? It will help to humanize you at a time when many voters feel disconnected from their elected officials.”

Christie didn’t follow my suggestion – and it wasn’t the first time a candidate chose not to take my advice.  If you’d like to see what else I suggested for him and Governor Corzine back in June – and how my suggestions jive with the paths the two candidates actually pursued — the post is still online: The Race for Governor: A Few Suggestions for the Candidates.

Feel free to get your scorecards out, but you may have more fun keeping score at a baseball game instead.

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