A viewer of the Monday night Idaho governor debate, between Republican Brad Little and Democrat Paulette Jordan, could be forgiven for sensing a discussion slipping away. Rather than coming to grips with topics of discussion, these candidates seemed to have trouble - or maybe avoided - obtaining purchase on a number of them.
Both candidates sounded uncomfortable at first, picking up more control as the hour wore on. The seeming uneasiness was a little odd since, by now, both have had months (in Little’s case, a year and a half) to polish their messages. There were no questions from out of left field; the subjects raised mostly were more or less predictable.
And yet both candidates seemed to have trouble grasping them. If they were trying to avoid sounding like purveyors of sound bites, they succeeded; but a lack of clarity and some evident dodginess was there instead.
Jordan’s campaign has generated a stack of the kind of headlines no candidate should want, from staff departures under mysterious circumstances to - this surfaced last week - spending for campaign services with a brand new company (Roughneck Steering Inc.) organized in Wyoming which appeared designed to hide information about itself from Idahoans. This isn’t just a gotcha situation; how a candidate runs a campaign realistically can be seen as a precursor to the methods used to run an administration.
Understandably, Jordan was asked about some of this, most specifically about the Wyoming company. Her response suggests she was not prepared for it. She didn’t answer the question, at all, even after a reporter clearly stated it three times. She did say repeatedly she favors transparency in government, but that didn’t come across well after her opaque answers about her campaign. (Little didn’t have a great deal to say in this area, reasonably since his campaign has had no comparable problems.)
She also tripped on the question of who she would choose to populate her administration, and how they would be chosen, and seemed (it sounded like an afterthought) to promote the idea of bringing in people from out of state to run Idaho agencies. That might not go over well.
She was able to score on Little, however, when the discussion turned to immigration and health care, two subjects where she answered clearly but he had his own difficulties. Little pointed out correctly that border issues are mainly a federal rather than state responsibility, and said reform of immigration policy is needed. But he became tangled, and shifted to avoidance, when asked about what policies he personally recommended and what he thought of the Trump Administration’s approach. He’s in a tough spot, in a state where the Trump policies on immigration are popular through much of his party but not in the many areas (including farm areas) where they create problems. Sill: Leadership grows out of the ability to make such choices.
Something similar happened when the subject was the ballot issue on Medicaid expansion, which Jordan clearly supports. Little has said (previously as well as here) that he would support the will of the people and implement the expansion if the voters pass it. But what does he recommend the voters do - pass it or oppose it? Little simply dodged.
Clarity did show up in some places. Little’s view of Idaho’s economic, education and social status is brighter - it should be, since he’s in a de facto incumbent position - than Jordan’s, and voters can make their own assessments accordingly.
Debates sometimes can be a place where a skillful candidate can take aim at his or her own weaknesses by addressing them strongly. Voter who watched this debate know this much: It didn’t happen here.