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Tuesday, May 29, 2012
The Hatch-Liljenquist Debate Debate

One is enough. More than two or three would be excessive. Eight is absurd, and the Liljenquist campaign is too smart not to know it. My thoughts on what's going on here . . .

We could see that the Republican primary race for US Senate in Utah was going to get childish when challenger Dan Liljenquist publicly invited Senator Orrin Hatch to eight debates in as many weeks, between the state convention in April and the June 26 primary. Liljenquist and his campaign had to know Hatch could not and would not agree to that many debates. Two or three would have been a reasonable number to propose.

Eight debates would be excessive even if the US Senate were not in session for most of the period. Because it is in session, the game works like this: If Hatch had agreed to all those debates, his challenger could have criticized him for neglecting his duties in Washington. Since he didn't, Liljenquist can say that Hatch is hiding from the voters.

The way they're talking, and the way the Deseret News, the Salt Lake Tribune, and Glenn Beck are piling on, you'd think that Hatch had refused to participate in any debates, that he was refusing to meet with or speak to voters at all, and that there hadn't been any debates before the convention either.

Why TV?

In fact, Hatch has agreed to one debate during the primaries, on Doug Wright's radio show on KSL. The reason the Liljenquist campaign treats one as if it equaled zero is not just that they want more debates. They want televised debates.

There's a funny thing about broadcast media: Our brains work differently when we listen to the radio. Listening to the radio is more conducive to understanding and evaluating ideas than watching television, with its overwhelming visual distractions. So going on the radio is actually better, if you want the campaign to be about ideas, as Liljenquist claims he wants.

If you must go on the radio, but still want to hide from the voters -- as Liljenquist claims Hatch wants -- the one station you don't choose in Utah is KSL. KSL is the big stick. I don't know the actual ratings, but I suspect that all other news/talk radio stations in Utah combined don't have as many listeners as KSL.

Why, then, is Liljenquist so determined to have televised debates? Assuming they're thinking straight -- a bold assumption in the heat of any campaign -- it must be because they want the visuals. That is, they want Orrin Hatch to look old.

Orrin Hatch is old. He turned 78 in March. One of the impressions the Liljenquist campaign is trying very hard to convey, without actually saying it, is that Hatch is too old to do the job any more. They're hoping that, if they can snare him into a televised debate, people will see how old he is, and come to the same conclusion. Or maybe he'll have a bad senior moment or two that look terrible on the nightly news and can be replayed ad nauseum until the polls close on June 26.

A High-Risk Proposition

If I were advising the opponent of a 78-year-old incumbent this year, I'd be very nervous about the risks of this strategy, because most voters aren't stupid, and a lot of them are senior citizens.

For about two years many observers expected Hatch to lose without a primary. Senior voters and delegates helped him succeed in caucuses and the convention, where he nearly won without a primary. Liljenquist cannot suggest overtly that Hatch is too old to serve without implying to these senior voters that they are too old to vote. Some of the anybody-but-Hatch crowd -- outside the campaign -- have been saying exactly that for months, but if senior voters get a whiff of this sort of agism from Liljenquist or his campaign, he's done.

Another risk is that Hatch will appear as the dignified senior senator next to the youthful upstart, even if he does have a minor senior moment or two. If that's the image that comes out of a televised debate, Hatch wins.

There's also a real risk that Hatch won't have a senior moment at all. If he is less sharp than he was when I met him 25 years ago, it's not by much. I attended a meeting in Provo where he spoke and answered questions non-stop for two hours, and he was in as fine form as ever: intelligent, articulate, energetic -- more than I would have been at that stage of a statewide campaign, and I'm about 30 years younger.

Maybe the Liljenquist campaign really believes Hatch is a doddering old fool, even if that does conflict with the anybody-but-Hatch dogma that he's a shrewd, calculating liberal in conservative clothing. Sometimes you can believe things that are false or contradictory, if you want to badly enough. Or maybe their internal polling shows that other things aren't working well enough, and they're desperate. Or maybe their zeal is simply outrunning their judgment. All these things are common enough in political campaigns.

An Even Higher Risk

There's talk of Liljenquist appearing at the debates he wants to have with a cardboard cutout of Senator Hatch, and playing carefully selected recorded statements by the Senator as his responses. The term that comes to mind for this ploy is "jumping the shark." (Wikipedia definition: the beginning point of "a decline in quality that is beyond recovery.") This silliness may please the people who are already voting for anybody-but-Hatch, but it's likely to backfire with the rest. Few will take the "statements" attributed to the cutout seriously, even if they are actual recordings, and the voters and the media will quickly lose interest. It will look undignified and desperate.

If life were a television series, or if Senator Hatch were somehow caught wind-surfing with Senator John Kerry when he's supposedly too busy to appear at his opponent's whim, the overall effect of this game might be neutral or slightly positive for the challenger. But if the answer to, "Where were you when Liljenquist debated a cardboard cutout?" is that Hatch was out doing his job or stumping for other Republican candidates, such as Mitt Romney, the cardboard cutout caper collapses.

Final Thoughts

Candidate debates are not the only opportunity, or even the best opportunity, to learn how candidates think. This is especially true when the two candidates have similar philosophies and positions. And there's no need for a lot of debates; you don't have to attend a debate or watch it live to experience it. The Doug Wright debate will be readily available free of charge as a podcast; you can listen to it at your leisure. No doubt highlights will also appear in KSL news broadcasts for a least a couple of days. Now more than before, the marginal return-on-investment of adding another debate drops precipitously after the first one, especially for an incumbent. So does the benefit to the voter.

The Liljenquist campaign smugly offered to go to Washington, DC, for a debate, if Senator Hatch couldn't come to Utah. Beside the foregoing, here are three more reasons for Hatch to decline: There are probably more effective ways for him to spend his campaign time than preparing for and attending multiple, very similar debates, whatever their locations. Holding a debate inside the Beltway would reinforce Liljenquist's narrative about Hatch being out of touch with Utah. And, above all, you don't let your opponent run your campaign.

Glenn Beck offered to host a debate; this may be the biggest anybody-but-Hatch fantasy of all. Either Beck is in the tank for FreedomWorks, a major advertiser, or the reverse, or both; maybe if I listened to him more, I'd know which. In any case, FreedomWorks either hired the most inept people available for its opposition research on Orrin Hatch and gave them carte blanche -- see the 44-page fraud they've mailed out a couple of times already -- or they gave the job to people who are smarter than that, but exceptionally dishonest. Senator Hatch agreeing to a debate on Beck's terms would be like Mitt Romney agreeing to a debate with President Obama that is moderated by Keith Olbermann and held at a Black Panther meeting.

June 26 could prove me wrong. But I think the anti-Hatch wing of the Tea Party in Utah (plus Glenn Beck, its guru) has spent so much time talking to itself and so little time listening to other conservatives that they overestimate the voter appeal of their vitriolic screed. Then again, why should they listen? They're convinced that the rest of us, especially Senator Hatch and anyone who defends him, are not "true conservatives."

This real conservative is still -- and increasingly -- unwilling to replace a top-tier, conservative senior senator with a top-tier, one-term state legislator.

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