Why Debates Matter

Longtime Mike Honda supporter and fundraiser Rich Robinson offers a humorous look at political debates in his recent column. But he sells the voters a little short.

He spends a lot of time deriding the “spin-doctors” and “political hacks” who provide the after-the-fact analysis. And he points out a series of famous and memorable debate mistakes.

However, Robinson dismisses the undecided voters who watch these debates as “ignorant or disingenuous,” suggesting that they make their decisions about who to vote for based on the candidates’ haircuts or ties.

This has not been my experience during the course of this campaign.

So far, I have visited and spoken with thousands of voters in the 17th Congressional District. They are deadly serious about this election and are eager to learn more about the candidates. They are exceedingly frustrated with a Congress caught up in total dysfunction. They want to see less partisanship in Washington and more progress on the critical challenges facing our country. They want to hear what the candidates have to say.

Candidate debates are an excellent opportunity for voters to learn more about the people who want to represent them in Washington. Debates allow them to hear the candidates’ ideas for the future in more than 30-second sound bites. They enable voters to judge for themselves each candidate’s energy and vision rather than having to rely exclusively on political mailers and TV ads.

Robinson reveals his real agenda at the end of his column, suggesting that “in races where one candidate is so strong (read: well-known), that to share a stage with their opponent is a waste of time.” In essence, he argues that longtime incumbents like Mike Honda are entitled to their seats without challenge or competition. They don’t have to earn the votes of their constituents. The less the voters learn or observe for themselves, the better.

It’s a pretty cynical view of what our democracy is all about.

On one issue, however, I’m in full agreement with Mr. Robinson:  you can’t discuss serious matters or offer thoughtful solutions in one-minute sound bites. That’s why I have proposed that the debates in this election be more open and free flowing, so candidates have the time to explain their views and to ask questions of each other. This style of debate, adopted in recent presidential elections, has served the voters well.

Unfortunately, Congressman Honda has so far refused to engage in ANY debates, which is a disservice to the voters. Instead, he’s unleashed Mr. Robinson to discredit the value of debates.

It may be easy to make fun of the analysts and spin-doctors or to point out the gaffes that candidates have made along the way. But disrespecting the voters is no laughing matter. It’s an affront to our democracy, in which our representatives are accountable to the people. Refusing to participate in debates demonstrates weakness, not strength.

Ro Khanna is a Democratic candidate for Congress from California’s 17th District. He wrote this column for San Jose Inside.


  1. Mr. Khanna,

    You have to understand, Rich Robinson is one of those spin doctors he is so busy deriding. Look at his history of “articles” where he bashes those who do exactly as he does. Look at the current candidate he is running, Laurie Smith, and the tactics they’re having to use to protect her from herself and her record in office. His tactic is always the same, he’s painfully predictable.

    Rich has a problem. His candidate has committed to a debate. He’s going to spend the next month or so trying to undermine the value of public debate because unlike last year, they’re not able to choreograph it all in her favor. I’ve pointed out that she lied last election season about her salary increases during a debate, so people will be showing up armed with facts this time around. And questions, lots of questions.

    Rich likes to hear himself talk, our hopes is after his popular candidate loses, he will spend a lot more time talking to himself rather than trying to talk to the public like we’re a bunch of bobble headed morons whom he thinks he can actually convince we don’t need to hear from our candidates to vote for them.


  2. Mr. Khanna,

    I admire the fact that you have the guts to take on the 800 pound gorilla (literally). Although I am neither a Republican nor a Democrat, I am an undecided voter living in your district. I suppose I fall into Mr. Robinson’s category of ‘ignorant and disingenuous’ (which I could care less because unlike him and many politicians like Mike Honda, I actually know what it takes to preserve and defend our American way of life and our democracy. I fought for it volunteering to serve in our military and have experienced war first-hand).

    I have a questions for you, which I hope you’ll answer because there have been many veterans local leaders who have tried to ask Mike Honda the same question but have been turned down time after time.

    Santa Clara County (Silicon Valley) is home to approximately 85,000 veterans and it is expected to tremendously increase in the very near future.

    How will you directly prepare and what will you advocate for when the influx of young veterans returning from the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan hit our district (region)?

    • I appreciate the comment on veterans, and agree that we need to do far more to honor and respect them when coming home. This means having more counseling services to help veterans, particularly those dealing with post traumatic stress. I also believe we should provide them with scholarships for further education and job training and provide tax credits for companies that will hire veterans. http://www.rokhanna.com/veterans

  3. It really is shame to see Mike Honda run away from debating Ro Khanna. In Hawaii there is a similar Democrat on Democrat election between Senator Brian Schatz and Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa. In that race, both candidates want a transparent process and have agreed to 5 debates. 5 DEBATES! I think the people of Silicon Valley deserve at least as much as what the people of Hawaii are getting. It’s time for Congressman Honda to strap on his katana and come to battle, instead of running scared like a coward.

  4. Mr. Khanna,

    You spend an inordinate amount of time debating about debates, which goes back to my original premise about the lack of substance in politics. As Walter Mondale said to Gary Hart, “Where is the beef?”

    But let’s get to your biggest gaffe. You called me cynical. Really?

    Just last year you sang the praises of Congressman Mike Honda, you said, “he is an outstanding representative for our area.” You went on to laud him as the “go-to” guy for the Obama Administration in matters regarding Asia. Mr. Khanna, you ended by saying quote; “it is a privilege to have him from this area.”

    Now, you choose to run against him? Does the word cynical resonate here?

    You claim you will eschew corporate donations, but $600,000 of your contributions come from venture capitalists and CEOs. Do you consider that a tad bit hypocritical?

    You say you are going to “work across the aisle” and change congress. In this partisan divide you are going to work with Eric Cantor and Ted Cruz. Call me cynical, but we need people who will stand up to the bullies not cater to them.

    In addition, you use the same bundling fundraising techniques as the Koch Brothers and you dare run as a reform candidate?

    Finally, you are running in the wrong campaign at the wrong time. Your failure to challenge Pete Stark is not the fault of Mike Honda. And Mike Honda is no Pete Stark. The reason you can’t get traction in this race, even with all of your money, is that voters know Mike Honda and they like Mike. In fact, you liked Mike until it was inconvenient.

    Finally, some political advice. You won’t be able to buy this election. Just as Meg Whitman couldn’t buy the governorship. The voters, whom I do trust, reject over-warn platitudes from inexperienced would-be leaders. They know Mike Honda, a poll we just did for another client shows he is the most popular political figure in the valley.

    So, you can save your country and your party a whole lot of dough by putting it where it can best be used, in races against republicans who continue to utilize obstructionist tactics to delay needed national policies you and I both agree. In fact, your own selfish campaign simply enables and emboldens their tactics.

    That way you could make a difference. By the way; no charge.

    • Sounds like someone really hit a nerve here. Maybe Ro’s comments cut too close to the bone for Mr. Robinson. #sourgrapes

    • Donations to 527 orgs, 2001-2010:

      The Evil Koch Bros:
      $1.35 million – Republican Governors Association
      $100k – Americans for Better Government

      Our man, George Soros:
      $12.05 million – Joint Victory Campaign 2004
      $7.5 million – America Coming Together
      $2.5 million – MoveOn.org
      $3.65 million – America Votes
      $3.5 million – The Fund for America
      $150k – Win Back Respect
      $120k – Majority Action
      $100k– Campaign Money Watch

      • Not to nitpick because I have a problem with this from either party… but let’s be fair, you left out Americans for Prosperity as well as direct lobbying costs. While they may have given less to 527’s, the Koch brothers are the top lobbying spender in the oil and gas industry (a company responsible for “offshoring” our oil to drive up prices and influence our government legislation by creating a false shortage) and 5th largest spender on federal lobbying. Koch is also the single largest contributor to federal candidates over all.

        Compare the whole basket, these people, all of them, are buying our government, and none of them are interested in us. Pointing out the Koch Bros spent less in a particular area of spending is not a good thing. Playing rubber and glue with these people, corporations and organizations is hurting all of us, regardless of party. Stop it.

        And people like Rich Robinson, all they’re doing (are paid to do) is try to spin things so fast that we keep playing this school yard game in the hopes we land on their candidates. Nothing more, nothing less. So, again, stop it.

    • Instead, he’s unleashed Mr. Robinson to discredit the value of debates.

      Interesting imagery.

  5. Ro Ro Ro your vote
    In District seventeen
    Merrily merrily merrily merrily
    Honda’s time has been.

  6. Raise your name recognition on your own dime, Ro. Don’t expect Congressman Honda to do it for you. Besides, why worry? Your CEO-funded bankroll will buy more than enough airtime for the simplistic pablum you’re selling.

  7. Rich is old, and he’s not really realizing what’s changing about politics. He is a Dino both figuratively and in abbreviated form. People know there’s no excuse not to engage in a non-staged fly by the seat of your pants question and answer session, and the internet has changed this alot.

    To that effect, there’s something a bit more daunting than a public forum, there’s the reddit AMA which many notable Democrats not *just* in name only have participated in.

    Arnold did 2.

    Even Obama did one.

    Ro do you see yourself doing a Reddit AMA anytime soon?

  8. Glad to see Khanna reply here, though I probably would not attend a debate, I would view it on YouTube or read a transcript. Would like to see a response to Puller’s question. Here in CA our soldiers serve and return home quietly. They and their families are quite invisible compared to other states. They require real support from us, not just lip service. I hope that Khanna has the balls to continue this dialog. To Mr. Robinson, crafty use of your SJI access and hypocritical of you to call debates unnecessary yet engage Mr. Khanna here in support of “your” candidate.