"Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers, who can cut through argument, debate and doubt, to offer a solution everybody can understand.” – Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell
In a noteworthy moment of unity, the editorial boards of The Enquirer, the Columbus Dispatch and sister news organizations across the USA TODAY Network Ohio jointly published an editorial. The topic? A denouncement of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and U.S. Senate candidate J.D. Vance’s decision to decline invitations to participate in debates sponsored by the Ohio Debate Commission.
You can read the editorial for the full argument, but here’s the gist of it: voters, particularly those who are undecided, benefit from seeing the candidates in a neutral setting (as opposed to, say, a campaign rally) responding to tough questions that don’t necessarily line up with their scripted talking points.
So what is the Ohio Debate Commission? When and why did it form? Who’s behind it? Is it partisan?
The Ohio Debate Commission was formed in 2018 to address a growing concern that candidates were starting to cherry-pick debates and forums hosted by organizations that either aligned with their political views or were deemed safe − as in no tough questions. Also, a slew of potential debate hosts − newspapers, television and radio stations, civic groups, universities − were fighting for a spot on the calendar. By forming a commission, not only do you create "a debate of record," so to speak, you can also elevate the discussion by implementing professional standards and best practices.
The idea for a statewide debate commission was hatched at the City Club of Cleveland, inspired by similar efforts in Indiana and Utah. Dan Moulthrop, CEO of the City Club of Cleveland, and a small group of like-minded individuals convened a meeting of leaders representing the groups I mentioned above. Full disclosure: I was one of those who attended and stayed with the effort, joining the board and working to establish the Ohio Debate Commission as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2020. Currently, more than 60 organizations from across the state are listed as contributors and supporters.
We hit the ground running with debates in 2018, including the gubernatorial race between Mike DeWine and Richard Cordray, and the U.S. Senate race between Sherrod Brown and Jim Renacci. The debates were well-received by candidates and voters alike. Fast-forward to 2022. The commission hosted debates in the Democratic primary for governor and the Democratic and Republican primaries for U.S. Senate. But as we made plans for the general election debates, we got the proverbial stiff arm. Or arms, rather.
DeWine declined our invitation to debate his challenger for governor, Democrat Nan Whaley. Though unfortunate, it’s not surprising – polls show DeWine has a double-digit lead. I have a lot of respect for DeWine, but I’m not alone in my disappointment he’s taking the path of least resistance. According to a poll we did with Suffolk University, 84% of Ohio voters want to see debates for this year’s statewide races.
In the tight race for U.S. Senate to fill the seat being vacated by Rob Portman, R-Ohio, Republican J.D. Vance’s campaign said “no, thank you” to our invitation to debate Democrat Tim Ryan. The campaigns would eventually agree to two debates hosted by television stations in Cleveland and Youngstown. But why did Vance say no to the Ohio Debate Commission after Ryan accepted the invitation? He and other Republicans, including state party chair Robert Paduchik, say the commission leans left.
It is true that the commission’s executive director, Jill Zimon, is a Democrat. She ran unsuccessfully for state representative in District 12 in 2014 and 2016. But the commission by doctrine and deed is nonpartisan. Its sole purpose, defined by its mission, "is to foster fair and substantive debates that encourage participation in our democracy."
The commission is extremely transparent. The board and its benefactors are listed on its website. The AARP, widely viewed as a model of nonpartisanship, is a major supporter. The website also includes videos of past debates. I invite you to look and evaluate the quality of the debates for yourself.
Is the Ohio Debate Commission perfect? Of course not. Politics is messy and our country's divide is deep. If during a past debate, a moderator pushed back on a candidate in a way that was perceived as partisan, I would say two things: One, our general election candidates are charged with representing the entire electorate, not just the people who vote for them; and second, candidates should have enough confidence in their beliefs and abilities that even a loaded question should pose no threat. None. Zero. Zilch. As Colin Powell said, great leaders can cut through argument, debate and doubt.
And that’s the true agenda of the Ohio Debate Commission. We want Ohio to have great leaders.
"Debates are difficult and troublesome and they’re fraught with potential pitfalls for candidates, but they’re irreplaceable," Moulthrop said when I told him I was writing this column. "There’s nothing else in the campaign journey quite like the pressure cooker of a debate. It’s a crucible where successful, thoughtful, temperamentally appropriate candidates are forged."
Beryl Love is executive editor of The Enquirer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Enquirer editor: DeWine Vance refusal to debate bad for Ohio voters