Editorial: Public debates are essential to good public policy

Des Moines Register | Editorial | 10/18/16

Editorial: Public debates are essential to good public policy

U.S. Rep. Steve King has carefully cultivated a national reputation for saying what he thinks.

If there’s a microphone and a camera nearby, the Republican congressman from Kiron can be counted on to gravitate toward them and to make headlines with verbal hand grenades that not only outrage Democrats, but also have caused headaches for the GOP leadership.

He also uses social media to spread the word about his many media appearances: I am live on C-SPANright now. Be sure to tune in! … I will be live on CNN's New Day with Chris Cuomo this morning… I will be calling in live on Fox News with Neil Cavuto at 9:20 am… I will be live on MSNBC's Meet the Press Daily with Peter Alexander at 4:00 pm ...” 

King thrives on attention. So it seems odd that he is now refusing to debate Kim Weaver, his Democratic challenger in the 4th District race for the U.S. House of Representatives. Odd, but definitely not unusual. He didn’t debate his Democratic opponents in his 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2010 bids for re-elections, either.

So why isn’t he debating Weaver this year?

“People know where I stand,” King told the Sioux City Journal. “I don't have people coming up to me, and saying, ‘Where are you on Obamacare, where are you on national defense or border security?’ ”

That might be a workable rationale for staying off the campaign trail and refusing to give speeches outlining his position on the issues. It’s not a plausible explanation, however, for refusing to defend those positions in a public debate while making the case for why he should remain on the congressional payroll.

King’s comments also suggest that his decision on whether to debate his opponent is based solely on political calculations, and that the only consideration is whether a debate can help or hurt his campaign for re-election.

“There's no upside to it,” King told the Journal. “There is nothing to be learned or gained.”

Coming from a seven-term congressman, that’s a very sobering statement, and its one that very nearly disqualifies him to serve in any elected capacity.

After all, the “upside” of publicly debating issues of national importance — for King, for Congress and for all of the citizens they represent — can’t be understated, let alone dismissed, as he has done, in such a casual fashion. Open and informed debate is what produces good public policy.

For King to argue that neither he nor his constituents are capable of learning or gaining anything from a vigorous debate on the merits of, say, the Affordable Care Act or U.S. policies on immigration, is to say that the preconceived notions they now hold, and the positions they have staked out for themselves, are both immovable and unworthy of being defended.

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