Finding value in televised political debates is a tricky thing these days. Owing mostly to modern political discourse combined with time constraints, many TV or streamed debates boil down to swimming in the shallow end of complex issues and trying to score points.
That’s probably why debates get compared with boxing or “sparring” so often. The metaphor runs deeper than the debates themselves, as boxing is a sport where judges score the event if there’s not a knockout — and what one judge sees can differ greatly from another.
Having said all of that, I think the televised and online debate Tuesday night between West Virginia’s Republican incumbent Gov. Jim Justice, and his Democratic challenger, Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango, went pretty well. It was a far cry from some of the chaotic national debates we’ve seen recently. Part of the credit for that goes to moderator Hoppy Kercheval, of West Virginia MetroNews, but even more belongs to the candidates for keeping calm and yielding when their time was up.
It was still, for the most part, a bumper sticker back-and-forth. For instance, I’m not sure why it’s important who either candidate will support for president, but cornering Salango on that issue seemed to be Gov. Justice’s greatest triumph of the evening.
I’m not a big fan of boxing, so let’s ditch that and switch to hockey. Justice being able to say that a Democratic candidate for governor will likely vote for the Democratic nominee for president is kind of like scoring an empty-net goal: it counts on the stat sheet, but it doesn’t really mean much.
However, when Justice tried to tag the national “defund the police” narrative on Salango, it was a transformative moment.
Salango, who had already cited Justice’s numerous conflicts of interest with his businesses and the hundreds of lawsuits over unpaid expenses, fines and taxes totaling more than $140 million, replied “Not paying your property taxes is essentially defunding the police.”
That was the equivalent of Justice dropping the gloves, only to have Salango pull the governor’s sweater over his head, land an uppercut and send him crashing to the ice before you could say “Bobby Orr.” Justice never really recovered from that. He tried to pick another fight over a nebulous allegation about the kind of car Salango drives and whether the taxes on it were current, which, other than scoring points for irony with a billionaire coal magnate trying to shame his well-off opponent, didn’t do much. Salango was skating circles around him at that point, and the youth and quickness Justice slags as his opponent’s weaknesses were revealed as strengths.
I have to wonder if it matters, though. I hope it does. But winning a hockey fight doesn’t mean your team wins the game, just as winning a debate doesn’t mean you win the election. Differing polls have Salango down anywhere from six points to double digits, and it’s hard to imagine a single debate will substantially help or hurt either candidate.
More importantly, a battle of quips is spectacle. It doesn’t solve the deep-running issues afflicting this state, many of which weren’t even discussed Tuesday night.
Maybe the most important thing to come out of the debate was that both candidates support a fairness act giving protection from discrimination to the LGBTQ community. That’s still something that has to get through the Legislature before it can go to the governor. It’s come close, but hasn’t succeeded yet. Hopefully, with both candidates on the record, it will get through in 2021.