Orrin Hatch is not the first entrenched politician to try to deny a challenger the spotlight and credibility that come with a chance to debate the incumbent. And he won't be the last.
But the senior senator from Utah is being particularly cynical with his grudging agreement to a single joint appearance with his rival in the June 26 Republican primary former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist. After weeks of claiming that pressing Senate business makes such a debate impossible, Hatch has deigned to a joint appearance with Liljenquist on KSL radio's Doug Wright Show, sometime in late June.
Meaning no disrespect to the multitalented Mr. Wright, or to his popular radio broadcast, but this is not what the voters of Utah need and deserve. Even KSL, in cooperation with its corporate siblings at The Deseret News, had offered to host a prime-time radio and TV broadcast debate with the two candidates, with Deseret/KSL executives handling all the complicated details.
But Hatch refused.
A radio broadcast can allow for some extended discussion of complicated topics. And candidates and serious voters alike might prefer the focus to remain on those issues, rather than being shifted to such trivia as whether a candidate is looking at his watch (like losing candidate George H.W. Bush) or emitting a frustrated sigh (like losing candidate Al Gore).
But radio lacks the impact of the televised debates that voters have become accustomed to over the past 50 years. It fails to offer voters, most of whom will never have the chance to confront either candidate in person, the best available opportunity to take the measure of each hopeful, side by side.
Another reason why the Doug Wright appearance is not sufficient is the fact that the program airs weekday mornings, from 9 a.m. to noon, a time when most voters are at work and are unlikely to be able to give the program their full attention, if they are able to have it on at all. The show's companion podcast, while helpful, won't make up the difference.
It is possible that Hatch has taken to heart the urban legend lesson of the first televised debates, between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential campaign. Lore has it that people who listened to the debate on the radio thought Nixon was the better candidate, with greater knowledge and experience, while TV viewers called the match for the younger, tanner, more handsome JFK.
Dan Liljenquist may be no Jack Kennedy. But he still deserves the chance to debate Orrin Hatch on prime time TV.