Despite their membership in a profession eternally linked to open mouths and open mikes, Georgia politicians have become a particularly silent group this summer.
And no, they don’t want to talk about it.
Over the past few weeks, the Atlanta Press Club has sponsored 16 select primary debates — some aired live on public TV, some delayed — featuring local, statewide and congressional races.
More than half the debates featured an empty podium — the symbol of the candidate who decided that absence was the better part of valor. Of the nine candidates who declined to appear, seven were incumbent officeholders, said Lauri Straus, the APC’s executive director.
Four refusals came from sitting members of Congress: Paul Broun of Athens, Hank Johnson of Decatur, John Lewis of Atlanta and Lynn Westmoreland of Coweta County. All easily won their July 31 primaries.
State Rep. Lee Anderson of Grovetown had participated in a multicandidate APC debate highlighting the Republican contest for the 12th Congressional District. But Anderson refused a one-on-one confrontation with Republican runoff rival Rick Allen, an Augusta businessman.
Likewise, Tim Lee, the incumbent chairman of the Cobb County Commission, has declined all invitations — including one from the APC — to appear side by side with Republican runoff rival Bill Byrne, the former commission chairman.
Both contests will be decided Tuesday.
If voters don’t always watch debates — the press club’s series should be considered a public service rather than a ratings driver — they at least like the idea of such forums. We are a nation of comparison shoppers. Put the Ford next to the Chevy, and let us choose.
Which is exactly why politicians hate debates. Incumbents especially think of the staged events as platforms offering challengers unearned legitimacy — a chance for upstarts to bask in reflected glory.
For them, debates are all risk with no payoff. They eat up valuable time for study and preparation. And YouTube now guarantees that any gaffe lives forever.
Might an empty podium mark an incumbent as aloof or detached? Especially at the congressional level, the financial advantages of incumbency erase any such worries. So tip your hat to U.S. Reps. Rob Woodall of Lawrenceville and Phil Gingrey of Marietta, who met their Republican challengers in APC debates last month — and still won handily.
But there is another, unspoken reason for a political candidate to avoid a debate: the lack of a talent for public argument.
Lord knows that glibness isn’t always the key to success. When he ran for governor in 1982, Joe Frank Harris could barely match subject to verb, but won nonetheless and turned out to be very good at his job.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Ralph Reed was too erudite by half in his GOP race for lieutenant governor in 2006. His very smoothness exacerbated suspicions about his Washington connections.
Consider Anderson, the Republican candidate in this year’s 12th District race to face down U.S. Rep. John Barrow, D-Augusta.
Allen, his businessman rival in the GOP runoff, is well-spoken. Anderson, however sincere, doesn’t possess a natural gift for gab. Joel McElhannon, his campaign consultant, said Anderson didn’t have five hours to waste on a trip to Atlanta for the press club debate. But Anderson was willing to make the same trip a week earlier — for a fundraiser.
Anderson has been endorsed by Gov. Nathan Deal and Attorney General Sam Olens. But other Republicans worry about how Anderson might fare in the tumult of a general election.
“There is [a] short, simple, painful truth about Lee Anderson,” wrote Erick Erickson, editor of Redstate.com. “He has seemingly never met two syllables without tripping over them. In a debate, John Barrow would eat the man up with some fava beans and a nice chianti.”
McElhannon also serves as a political consultant for Lee, the Cobb County commission chairman — who, like Anderson, has refused all runoff debates.
“The public has had more than ample opportunities to hear from the candidates in this race,” said McElhannon, who counted up a dozen or so pre-July 31 debates. “Byrne’s behavior at more recent debates and in public has become increasingly erratic, hostile and disrespectful to the voters. Tim is just not interested in being associated with any person or event like that.”
Scruples aside, anyone who has watched Lee over the years has sensed that while he is a creditable manager, he has a discomfort with public confrontation. By contrast, Byrne, his opponent, has a talent for extemporaneous speaking. He loves a fight.
Lee, like many others, is gambling that the public won’t miss what it doesn’t see.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider