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  • Neal Simon

Designing Better Debates

On Sunday, October 7, 2018, at 3 pm, in the studio of Fox 45 in Baltimore, I participated in a televised debate with incumbent Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Republican challenger Tony Campbell. The moderator was Jennifer Gilbert, a TV anchor for Baltimore's WBFF News. In some ways, this experience was the high point of my campaign. The feedback from viewers was overwhelmingly positive. They felt I came across as likable, trustworthy, and substantive on the issues. Shortly afterward, we peaked in the polls at 18 percent.


During the debate, I focused on issues on which the majority of Americans supported moderate solutions, but where the two parties held more extreme positions. On immigration, for example, I questioned Cardin about his party's hostility to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE), while condemning Campbell for his advocacy of policies that tear apart immigrant families. I called for a compromise that included improving border security and establishing a path to citizenship for law-abiding, tax-paying residents who have been in the United States for many years.


Likewise, I took a middle ground on healthcare, saying that the nation's focus should be on improving the Affordable Care Act. I chided Campbell for advocating the repeal of the ACA without offering any replacement, which would leave millions of American uninsured. I also questioned Cardin for supporting Medicare for All, which would entail a massive expansion of the federal government.


I pointed out that Cardin marches in lockstep with Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer. Cardin voted with his party's leadership 97 percent of the time, more than any other senator. In response to a question about the greatest threat to our country, I answered: "President Trump's Twitter account and Senator Cardin's rubber stamp."


Near the end, I asked the audience to imagine the history books our children and grandchildren will read in the future. I described a chapter called "Partisanship and Divisiveness" covering the 1990s to 2010s and then asked people to imagine the next chapter, one in which the country comes together and moves forward. I asked them to join a movement of Democrats, Republicans, and independents--and to vote for someone who represents the people of Maryland rather than a political party. At the end of the debate, I challenged my opponents to two more debates, and said that I'd meet them "anytime, anywhere."


Yet this session, watched by only 1 percent of Maryland voters, would be the campaign's only debate. This was by design, the design of the incumbent, who didn't perform well that day and didn't want to risk his front-runner status. The small audience was no accident either. Our debate was held during a Baltimore Ravens football game in the middle of a three-day weekend. This was the only time slot Cardin's camp would accept. Worse, despite previously agreeing to a second televised debate, Cardin refused to make good on his word.


How did Ben Cardin get away with this? Pre-order your copy of Contract to Unite America: Ten Reforms to Reclaim Our Republic (out February 18) today to understand the need for open, fair, educational, and--above all--accessible presidential and congressional debates.

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© 2020 Neal Simon

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