Another debate about debates. Yawn …

Two days after Republican James “Duke” Aiona challenged his Democratic opponent for governor Neil Abercrombie to six debates, Aiona’s campaign manager Dutch Hanohano issued a press release ripping Abercrombie for not immediately accepting.

“The people of Hawai‘i need real solutions, not just talk,” Hanohano said in what  hardly seemed a compelling argument for six hours of talk.

There is nothing more boring in a political campaign than a debate about debates, which is on the same intellectual level as the argument over the shape of the table at the Paris peace talks.

In the 2006 Senate race between Daniel Akaka and Ed Case, you would have thought for a time that Case’s only issue was Akaka’s refusal to debate him as often as he wanted. You saw how far that got him.

Early in this year’s Democratic primary, it was Abercrombie whining that Mufi Hannemann wouldn’t agree to his debate demands. They ended up debating so many times in forums around the state that they were feeding each other cues.

Aiona is right that there need to be substantive debates before we go to the polls, but no candidate is going to accept an opponent’s debate proposal as presented — effectively allowing his own campaign timetable to be set by the opposition.

It happens by the campaigns meeting with the private groups that sponsor debates and hashing out a schedule. Until that process happens, trying to paint an opponent as being afraid to debate is one of the oldest — and cheapest — tricks in the book.

This election isn’t going to be decided by who’s the better debate organizer.

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19 Comments on “Another debate about debates. Yawn …”

  1. Kolea Says:

    Thank you, David!

    Clearly, the candidates should debate, and WILL debate. Aiona’s team figured it would make him look like a “take charge” kinda guy if he were to hit Neil with the debate challenge immediately. And that Neil might somehow misstep with his answer.

    I agree it looked like a “cheap”trick, but it fooled the Star-Advertiser editors, who themselves immediately jumped in to praise Aiona for his proposal.

    Come on guys, let’s give Neil a moment to catch his breath. Let reps of the two campaign meet to hammer out the details of the debates.

    Because I was not paying attention to the GOP gubernatorial primary, I may be wrong. But I don’t remember Aiona debating John Carroll. So maybe he should go light on “the people have a right to a debate” rhetoric?

    Duke says the issues deserve more than “30 second sound bites.” So I guess he is prepping for 60 second talking points instead? I would LOVE to hear both men have to talk extemporaneously in response to important questions neither of them has anticipated.

    We need a chance to see them think on their feet, drawing forth their intelligence, their values and their personality for all to see.

  2. charles Says:

    Frankly, the election shouldn’t be decided who is the best debater as well.

    Debating skills and policymaking skills are two very different skill sets.

    Debating requires thinking on your feet, practicing verbal jabs and one-line zingers (“There he goes again”) and summarizing complex issues into slogans.

    Policymaking requires collaboration, thoughtfulness, due diligence, reflection, and perserverance.

    Give me the better policymaker any day over the better debater.

  3. WooWoo Says:

    Sure, it’s old hat, but apparently Neil’s camp wasn’t prepared for it or they would have had a quick answer.

    I hope that Abercrombie agrees to the in-depth format that Aiona has proposed. The proposal for 6 debates is a smart political move since there is no time to do more and so the best Abercrombie can do is accept Aiona’s initative. But the format is something that I hope we can all agree is constructive and good for democracy. One hour just on education. Who can say that’s a bad thing? Maybe because I am an optimist, but I can envision a wonderful conversation between the two.

    If those of you in Neil’s camp are so convinced that Aiona is a paper shirt, doesn’t the whole idea of one hour on one topic make you salivate? I mean, “audit the DOE” can only carry him for the first 3 minutes. Then, he needs to go deeper. If he doesn’t have anything more than that, it will be obvious to everybody watching.

    Assuming you believe that Neil is a vastly superior to Duke, you should be clamoring for Neil to accept. So why aren’t you?

    (I also want to put it out there that I am in no way associated with the Aiona campaign. That’s not to say I don’t support him, it’s just that I have limited hours in the day.)

  4. Gargoyle Says:

    I believe the “breathless” Neil’s exact response to Aiona’s debate challenge was “It’s not my job”.
    Thanks for leaving this out of the story Dave, we need more journalists like you to make sure we are not troubled by information.

  5. Michael Says:

    I rather support a Mute Candidate that Works and Sweats, that gets things done. No one to talk to, just work steady.

    I have suggested that Ex-Governor Lingle be one of panel members who gets to ask questions to Either Candidate. Not sure if it will be done. Hawaii News may or may not.

    I would also like to see both Governor and Lt. Governor debate at the same time, since issues will be dealt by both at sometime or another. LG is not just a shadow but someone effective. I may suggest this to Aiona since its his Challenge or to Abercrombie and this would be his counter challenge.
    Kill 2 birds with one stone.

    I believe the one who can debate To Protect Hawaii will win.

  6. hugh clark Says:

    Debate is a word with many meanings. Are we discussing Lincoln-Douglas type mano o mano exchanges or responding to a panel of intelligent questioners or planning a re-run of bad Teevee we witnessed in the primary?(That contrived booing and cheering was a total turnoff).

  7. waialuahaole Says:

    Dave, you got some of your facts wrong — Dutch was reacting to Neil rejecting the debate challenge.

    Remember that famous quote by Neil about Duke’s challenge to debate? — “It’s not my job.” (Well, technically he’s right, I guess, he quit his last job.)

    A more appropriate response to the challenge might have been “Of course we’ll debate, and we’ll just have to huddle with our opponents to nail down the details of when/where/how.”

    But he didn’t say that. He said no.

  8. David Shapiro Says:

    There have been a couple of references to Abercrombie’s “it’s not my job” quote. Here is the full quote in context from West Hawaii Today:

    “We had full participation in our primary,” Abercrombie said, then took the chance to comment on his Republican counterpart, Lt. Gov. James “Duke” Aiona. “That cannot be said about the opposition. The lieutenant governor has been aloof.”

    He referred to Aiona’s decision not to participate in any forum or debate prior to the primary election. Further, Abercrombie said, “it’s not my job to make up for the time he’s missed. That’s not my fault.”


    The Star-Advertiser quoted the Abercrombie campaign as saying he looks forward to debating Aiona once the specifics are worked out. I agree with WooWoo that a debate on education would be useful. I just can’t say the same about a debate on debates.  

  9. 3keys Says:

    Understand, David, but Abercrombie’s response sounds like he does not want to consider debating Aiona at all. If he said let’s work out the details w/ an independent body (e.g., League of Women Voters), I could understand. I wasn’t interested in a debate between Abercrombie and Aiona before the Primary. I wanted to see the debates between Abercrombie and Hannemann to be able to make an informed choice on who to vote for in the Primary. Abercrombie should reconsider.

  10. Gargoyle Says:

    I think its great that Neil said “the time he’s missed” that changes … uh… nothing. But it sounds like he actually said something there. Good thing nobody is covering this story. Ignorance is bliss and if voters see just what a blowhard Abercrombie is, they might not vote for him. And we can’t have that now, can we?

  11. Jim Loomis Says:

    Debates? Yes, of course … as long it isn’t on KGMB in that ridiculous game-show format that trivialized the who event.

  12. Jim Loomis Says:

    make that “whole event.”

  13. Kolea Says:

    I just looked at Aiona’s “Morning in America” website. (OK, it’s actually called “Rise and Shine Hawaii,” but forgive me for noticing the obvious effort to evoke Reagan).

    The proposal to have six debates, each an hour long and dedicated to a particular subject, strikes me as pretty contrived. Aiona says voters deserve more than 30 second sound bites on these issues. That’s right. But what he appears to be proposing is a series of half-hour infomercials instead.

    The idea appears to be to have each candidate coached by their handlers to deliver glib talking points to weave a “vision” of a solution in these six areas. Given the low-expectations voters have of Aiona, he would benefit if he was able to string together a few paragraphs of coherent thoughts without launching into a sermon or triggering a bout of “speaking in tongues.”

    One of Duke’s main weaknesses is the public perception, accurate or not, that he is a dim bulb. Causing voters to think “he’s not as dumb as I thought,”is his main objective from the debates. An understandable goal, but let’s not confuse that with stimulating broad consideration of our problems and how to actually solve them.

    Take “Education” as a subject. WooWoo acknowledges indirectly that people don’t know Duke’s thinking on the subject beyond “Audit the DOE.” If Duke is now prepared to spend half an hour presenting his ideas on education, why should that subject be off limits in future debates? The strategy seems more geared for him to cram for a debate on a subject, get it over with and then move on to another subject for the same treatment.

    Let’s debate all these subjects over the course of the campaign. Each candidate can sound glib for a brief moment, the ideas can enter public debate, percolate and be re-debated as their glibness wears off and their weaknesses become evident.

    Heck, Mufi’s Rail proposal sounded good the first time I heard it. It required point and counter-point, thought and deliberation for its glaring defects to become evident.

    I would welcome a series of debates, with differing formats. I am less interested in hearing the candidates provide well-prepared pat answers than in hearing them respond to questions they did not expect to be asked which will require them to think on their feet, while we watch HOW they think and what values they bring to their decisions.

    Here’s one.

    Q: Both of you have seen firsthand the changes Hawaii has undergone over your lives. Describe for us those changes, your feelings about them, the trajectory you see Hawaii on if present trends continue and what policies can be adopted to offer us a different future?

    Let ’em get as poetic or concrete as they want, as visionary or hardboiled realist. Heck, isolate them from each other so that they have to answer without having heard the other’s answer. Actually, the answers to some questions could be taped before the debate and aired to kick things off.

  14. WooWoo Says:

    I am largely in agreement with Kolea. The important point is to move away from the existing format of two candidates trading sound bites (with 7th grade style booing in between). I don’t necessarily think that having a two-candidate “infomercial” is a bad thing.

    I also agree with a previous poster about how the ability to “think on your feet” is over-rated. When do you EVER want the Governor to make a decision on the spot without consulting others?

    I think it would be cool to ask questions similar to the one you proposed, Kolea. How about 5 questions, 1 hour locked in a room by yourself with nothing but a pen and legal pad, and then come out and present your answers to the audience?

    Can we agree that ANYTHING is better than the current format?

  15. Michael Says:

    I think a debate is a waste of time and money. I believe it is just 2 candidates forcing their opinions at each other. You wrong I am right and vice versa. Why debate with one who uses big words? Small talk with big words to make it look important.
    Who wants the last say?
    Not a discussion but trash talking and the best trash talker is the best candidate to win. Only in America.

    I think a duel of honor is best. Cheap and winner is left standing. Back to Back, walk ten paces turn and fire. Wars should be fought like this. One champion versus the other. Winner takes all. No words just action. Saves lives.

  16. Jenna Says:

    Abercrombie and Schatz are under the impression that they are entitled to their positions as a result of their “brothership” with the president. Voters may have a different outlook on that attitude so debates would bring that thought process to the forefront enabling voters to make a choice as to issues vs ties to the boss.

  17. Kolea Says:


    Your statement is off-base. Both men are running on their records and experience. The ties with Obama are a plus for them, but neither of them won based upon that association. Schatz DID benefit from his involvement with the Obama campaign, as that swept him into the chairmanship of the Democratic Party. From that position, he was able to make contacts across the state and demonstrate his political judgment to various political networks and “players.”

    But neither of them feel they are “entitled” to win the election because of their ties to Obama.

    (Why do people think it is acceptable to debase politics with such stupid, unfounded attacks? Too much Fox News on the brain. Not enough high “civics.”)

    Hey Dave, here’s an idea! Require all your posters to read essays from the Federalist Papers as a pre-condition for entry. Not that any of us write (or think) at that level. But maybe it will serve as a better role model than Limbaugh, O’Reilly or Beck? Or Palin?

    Heck, it is the people who are shouting their “patriotism” from the rooftops and who treat the “Founding Fathers” as Protestant saints who stray the furthest from the political thinking of Madison, Hamilton and the others.

    Sorry, Jenna if my eruption here is unfair to you specifically. But your comment was unworthy of the kind of discussion we need as we consider HOW to improve our lives.

  18. WooWoo Says:


    right as you may be, keep in mind that others may share Jenna’s mindset. Perhaps some/many Hawaii voters are tired of the “I know Obama” line?

    Perception is reality, and if a voter watches a Schatz commercial that lists 3 things that he did that the voter is not familiar with (legislative committees, a nonprofit that does not have big name recognition with the general public, etc) and then mentions his connection to Obama, the whole commercial becomes “Oh, he like make like he’s tight with Obama. Everybody does that. ‘Nuff already.”

    Is this unfair to Schatz and Abercrombie, who actually deserve credit for knowing and supporting Obama well before it became hip? Probably. Such is life.

  19. Michael Says:

    lingle never admitted she was wrong.
    She cannot make decisions that one in her office alone can make but for the public to decide.

    Never saw an issue that 2 flew the cuckoos nest.
    It’s back and going to haunt 2 Dandidates this coming election. Dandy for them, cause the main issue will be overpowered by an old issue that should have been taken care of. Hanneman’s lost may be a blessing in disguise. He does not have to deal with the “Ghost” of the Past.

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