Eric Stewart, Democratic nominee for Tennessee's 4th District seat in the U. S. Congress, wants to publicly debate Scott DesJarlais, the incumbent Republican and his opponent in the Nov. 6 general election. That's a request voters in both parties should respect. Debates provide an opportunity for incumbent and challenger to explain and defend their policies on important issues. DesJarlais obviously believes he doesn't owe that to district voters. He's arrogantly rejected Stewart's reasonable request for three debates in the next month.
Stewart made the timely request following early August primary voting. The response should have been a prompt agreement to do so. Instead, DesJarlais dawdled for a week, then sent the challenger an email on Sunday in which he refused the request. His answer reeked of a superciliousness and an elitism ill suited to any political candidate or elected official.
"While I am open to revisiting the question [about debates] later in the campaign, your lack of clarity on the issues gives me no reason for or basis from which we could currently debate," DesJarlais' missive stated. What arrogance and disrespect.
Voters, not DesJarlais, should determine if Stewart provides "clarity on the issues." The best way for them to do that would be to see and hear the candidates debate. DesJarlais apparently is afraid to do so, though his campaign spokesman tried to put a more positive spin on the refusal. Brandon Lewis says DesJarlais will evaluate the question of debate "later in the campaign." Yeah, right.
DesJarlais clearly hopes that his incumbency and attendant name recognition coupled with the strong GOP leanings of the district will carry him to victory without the necessity of debate. That's nothing new. He's purposefully avoided debate before -- in an ultimately successful campaign to unseat U.S. Rep. Lincoln Davis, D-Tenn., in 2010.
DesJarlais obviously doesn't want to alter a successful formula for victory. Until polls indicate that he must debate to shore up his voter base, he seems content to refuse to debate his lesser-known opponent. That might be prudent campaign strategy, but it is still cowardly and a civic disservice.
If DesJarlais did agree to debate, the face-to-face meetings could expose his flawed policies and his first-term shortcomings. Why risk that, he and his campaign strategists no doubt think, if he can win without debating. The answer is simple -- and rooted in democracy.
Voters and the political system deserve respect from those who seek office. Failure to appreciate both might be cunning politics, but it effectively deprives voters of a chance to take the measure of both candidates, a necessity if sound decisions are to be made. Voters who object to DesJarlais' high-handed refusal to debate Stewart should hold him responsible for the self-serving lapse when they cast ballots on Nov. 6.
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