Understand that Democrat Sen. Mary Landrieu’s acceptance of four debates with opponents to her reelection signals definitively that she gets it that her prospects to return to Washington are in trouble.
Back in the good old days, debates – where candidates actually verbally sparred back and forth for hours, instead of rushing to drop in as many relevant sound bites as they can before hustling to the next question as these have become today – served a useful process for the politically interested who could spread this information to others that they otherwise could not acquire from any source. These days, the interested person pretty much can find everything and anything about a candidate’s issue preferences through watching plenty of television advertisements and/or reading mail pieces and/or (most comprehensively with views from all sides) making a few mouse clicks. The casually interested will pay no attention to these, unless something dramatic happens that gets reverberated through news stories and campaign communications forcibly delivered to their eyeballs, eardrums, mail boxes, and in-boxes.
For these reasons, as information about candidacies increased and became more easily disseminated over the past few decades, debates have devolved, from candidates’ perspectives, into going on patrol in a minefield. A candidate can do nothing on his own to derive any benefit from a debate; rather, he only can harm himself by saying something stupid that makes him look uninformed, ignorant, or “uncaring” enough to voters. Any debate participation produces gains only if one or more opponents make unforced errors that you avoid. In other words, it’s a gamble as to whether you won’t blow it to your detriment and if others do to your benefit.
This is why incumbents avoid them as much as possible. Only incumbents in extremely advantageous situations can dispense with them entirely, because then opponents and (particularly applying when conservatives are involved) the media muse about the incumbent having to be afraid of something, so generally at least one has to be undergone. And usually it’s challengers that bring it up and try to get the incumbent to agree to as many as they can get simply because they are disadvantaged and have less to lose and much greater to gain. After all, if they are behind and say something idiotic, they’ve not thrown away a winning hand, but the more often they can get the person with the winning hand to go through a minefield, the more that incumbent has a chance of stepping on one that serves to fold the hand. Additionally, incumbents come off less impressively when they share stages with challengers, admitting that they are her equals when it’s to her advantage to cultivate an image of indispensability.
Which is why it is so telling that Landrieu readily accepted four opportunities to debate, and doing so prior to qualification to office, remarkable as incumbents typically drag out as long as possible negotiations in order to scuttle as many opportunities as possible. In contrast, these are more than Landrieu had in both her prior reelection bids and agreed to confirm earlier. It’s obvious: she’s so worried about her prospects that she’s thinking she may need an opponent to blow up to get her a win, and needs the boost so much that she’ll risk getting detonated instead.
That opponent, of course, is not Republican Rob Maness, the military retiree/corporate functionary trailing her badly in the polls who has been waging an unconvincing campaign that he offers the only genuine alternative to Landrieu, who immediately took up with her on this offer so as to appear with the big boys and girls. It’s Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy, for whom for months almost every poll has shown him leading the contest when matched against Landrieu. And in a kind of role reversal, it’s therefore Cassidy who is hemming and hawing about having these, who now says he’ll commit only after qualifying ends in less than two weeks.
It’s one thing when data indicate something about a candidate’s fortunes, but it’s another thing a magnitude more powerful when a candidate in essence admits something, especially that which discomfits the campaign and its supporters. What knowledge she must privately had endured for some time, that this contest is slipping away, now has gotten to the point that she now must cue it publicly as a consequence of trying to save her flagging hopes.