A Good Debate Spoiled

Brett Wakeman and Ryan Zoellner

On Thursday, New York’s 22nd district congressional candidates came together in the Colgate chapel for what was the first televised debate in that race. All three candidates — Claudia Tenney (R.), Kim Myers (D.) and Martin Babinec (I.) had strong performances and articulated clear, if not to-be-expected campaign platforms, which are summarized below. The topics presented to the candidates varied from local issues like the role of the EPA and expanding small business to broad federal issues such as gun control and campaign finance. The biggest problem of the night, however, was moderators Liz Benjamin and Nick Reisman’s strict, compartmentalized vision for the structure of the debate. It focused on quick soundbite answers rather than a substantial debate of issues, the quintessence of which was the “lightning round” that limited candidates’ responses to a literal single word. Our analyses of each candidate’s performance and of the debate as a whole are as follows: 

Martin Babinec: the independent candidate is originally from Upstate New York but left to found his company, TriNet, in Silicon Valley. He runs on an Independent, largely single-issue platform focused on job creation for the district. Babinec’s performance on Thursday night would be best categorized as even-keel. He was calm and articulate, the exact opposite of the painfully awkward Babinec who New York State voters have seen in his infamous “barbeque ads” over the last couple of weeks. On the issues, Babinec presented himself primarily as a right-leaning independent with a libertarian streak. This was surprising given Babinec’s staunch support for Hillary Clinton and Obamacare over the years. He took a “common sense” approach to addressing terrorism by urging strong borders with “comprehensive” immigration policies, and he took a stand against federal intervention in the form of the EPA and water quality minimums. Recently though, Babinec has come under scrutiny due to his connections with the corrupt Cuomo-led Start-Up NY initiative he could not escape addressing this issue at the debate. Overall, this appeared to be a last ditch effort for Babinec to gain Republican votes by running to the right in these final few weeks. 

Kim Myers: the Democrat currently lives in Vestal, serves on the Broome County Legislature and is the heiress to the Dick’s Sporting Goods fortune. For the most part, Myers stuck to traditional Democrat talking points: advocating for increased government intervention on the topics of the EPA and the Internet. She is also a proponent of expanded gun control and programs which would inevitably lead to tax hikes. Coming into Thursday night, Myers was down five points and needed a major performance to turn the tide; no such shift occurred. Rather, she ran far to the left of her opponents in this notably Republican district and fumbled a question about her evaluation of Cuomo’s performance as governor. Overall, it was a weak performance by Myers, who came across as inarticulate and out of touch when compared to her two opponents. 

Claudia Tenney: the Republican frontrunner is a small business owner and current New York State Assemblywoman. She is originally from Hamilton and is a graduate of the Colgate Class of ’83. Tenney began the debate by reiterating the fact that she has a 96 percent attendance rating, a response to the $7 million Democrat smear campaign against her on that topic. Tenney also emphasized the fight she has waged against corruption in NY, like calling for Sheldon Silver’s resignation. In terms of policy, she put pronounced emphasis on slashing taxes and regulation in New York, a hot-button issue for the state with the highest taxes in the union. Given the significant Republican slant in Madison county, Tenney also made sure to mention her strong record on defending gun rights by opposing the Safe Act and obtaining an “A” rating from the NRA. Tenney appeared the clear winner in this debate, despite numerous interruptions from the moderators. She stayed on message and demonstrated her strong record advocating for Upstate New York. 

On the whole, this debate was made for TV. Local politics are notoriously “un-sexy” in terms of media coverage and viewership, but Time Warner and our two debate hosts clearly aimed to change that perception; what resulted was the embodiment of everything wrong with the modern digestion of politics.

From the very beginning of the debate, Benjamin and Reisman put extraordinary emphasis on an apparent lack of time and a “packed docket.” Any single issue was given no more than five minutes of consideration and candidates (some more than others) were abruptly cut off. Any discussion that seemed to be following a more organic course was nipped in the bud while the issue it concerned was left to wither and die in its complexities.   

By choosing to structure the debate this way, Time Warner (and any debate host for that matter) is making a clear value judgment of these issues. That judgment was less than satisfactory. Obviously, the broadcast giant has a responsibility to its viewers and advertisers, as few people are interested in watching a four hour conversation. Nevertheless, there must be a happy medium, where legitimate debate meets some degree of palatability. To think that there are scores of people who have dedicated their lives and careers to the topics given a yes or no consideration by this debate’s “lightning round” is disheartening, to say the least. Broadcast companies have a responsibility to give these debates a modicum of the time and respect they deserve, and we as an electorate, must be willing to listen.