In Senate race, early debates shouldn’t preclude fall faceoffs

In politics, there are tricks aplenty that candidates use to avoid high-profile debates. One can do as wily veteran Ted Kennedy did in 2006 and accept a single debate on a well-regarded but relatively low-profile media outlet like New England Cable News. He or she can agree to debate only on a night when viewers are sure to be watching more enticing events, or can insist on debates that occur before voters are fully focused on the race. And let’s not forget Tom Menino’s 2005 trick of doing a radio debate as one of his few encounters with an attention-starved rival.

Over the years, Massachusetts voters have seen all those stratagems and more. They shouldn’t let either of the candidates in the US Senate race get away with any of them.

Shortly after Democrat Elizabeth Warren told reporters she was eager to engage in summer debates with Senator Scott Brown, the Republican incumbent announced he had accepted two radio debates, one with WBZ Radio’s Dan Rea, a second on WTKK’s “Jim & Margery Show,” plus a TV debate hosted by WBZ-TV’s Jon Keller. The Republican incumbent has subsequently agreed to another TV debate, this one by a western Massachusetts media consortium.


Of those, Warren has said she will do the Keller/WBZ-TV debate and the western Massachusetts event, but has not agreed to the radio faceoffs. Instead, she wants to negotiate two more TV debates with her rival.

Get Arguable in your inbox:
Jeff Jacoby on everything from politics to pet peeves to the passions of the day.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

In the past, candidates’ staff members have often worked out the details of when and where to debate. But Brown campaign manager Jim Barnett has rejected the idea of the two camps coming together to do so, saying Brown will make his own decisions — and that he will be in-studio for the radio encounters regardless of whether Warren agrees to attend.

Now, Dan Rea, Jim Braude, Margery Eagan, and Jon Keller are all smart, knowledgeable journalists. If past is prologue, any debates they host would be well worth watching or listening to. Still, the concern is that, since Brown’s campaign has said he favors three or four debates, the senator will use those lower-profile events to sidestep a higher-profile fall encounter or encounters sponsored by a consortium of Boston media outlets. (The consortium includes WCVB-TV, WGBH-TV, WHDH-TV, NECN, The Boston Globe, and WBUR and WGBH radio.)

So far, only Warren has accepted the Boston consortium’s invitation to debate. Brown’s camp responded by noting that the senator “has already accepted four debate offers, including two radio forums that Elizabeth Warren has refused to commit to. Everything else is under consideration.”

Let’s be clear. Lower-profile, single-station debates, though certainly welcome, are no substitute for multi-station debates of the sort the Boston consortium hosts, just as debates during the lazy days of summer are no substitute for faceoffs in September and October, when voters really focus on politics. Regardless of other debates they may do, Brown and Warren should square off in several multi-station debates in the fall. Three would be ideal. Two should be a minimum for a campaign of this importance.