A debate about debates
The University of Guam’s Great Debate is the Super Bowl of Guam politics— a primetime pre-election event that typically sees hundreds of political supporters flocking to the UOG Calvo Fieldhouse. It makes people sit on the couch with a bowl of popcorn on their laps and their attention glued to the TV screen. It gets sponsors and advertisers excited about their products thrust into the limelight throughout the duration of the candidates' back and forth.
But the Great Debate is rarer than the annual Super Bowl; it takes place only every four years marking the gubernatorial race. Not this year though.
UOG has canceled the Great Debate slated for Nov. 3, which would have been the 8th since it was launched by the School of Business and Public Administration in 1994. This is the first time it was ever canceled.
The event’s cancelation was prompted by the Democratic team’s decision "not to share the stage” with their Republican opponents, giving the ultimate tit for tat.
Former Gov. Felix Camacho and his running mate, Sen. Tony Ada, previously turned down invitations to participate in the forums and debates organized by the Guam media, the Guam Women's Chamber of Commerce and the University of Guam Student Organization.
Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero and her running mate, Lt. Gov. Josh Tenorio, returned the favor by skipping the Guam Association of Realtors' virtual town hall meeting for gubernatorial candidates, leaving the screen all to the Republican team.
"Had Felix Camacho agreed to debate fairly in front of women, the free press, and CHamoru language students, Lou and Josh would have been at all debates," said Rory Respicio, spokesperson for the Leon Guerrero-Tenorio campaign.
Both camps have since traded press statements and social media posts, assailing each other and resenting mutual rejections. Off stage, the two gubernatorial teams debated about debates.
The debate-skipping trend started before the primary when Delegate Mike San Nicolas, who was then running for the Democratic nomination against Leon Guerrero, snubbed the Guam media forum, saying he wasn’t happy with one of the media outlets sponsoring the event.
But the emerging aversion to the time-honored tradition of debate is not exclusive to Guam. According to the political website FiveThirtyEight, 58 percent of races for the U.S. Senate this year had no debates. "Numerous candidates for governor and other offices have decided that participating in debates is not in their own best interest,” the website said.
Skirting debates is usually a decision made behind the scene by the candidates’ political handlers, who see such a format as an unbridled platform as opposed to carefully drafted press releases and meticulously tailored political ads. And there's the digital town square called “social media” that gives politicians direct access to voters.
Yet, Guamanians can’t resist the temptation to repeat clichés and lecture candidates about what they presumably know already: Public debates are a benchmark of democracy in action. They allow us to compare and contrast candidates, their characters, their responses to pressure and their takes on issues.
During a debate, a candidate’s policy position and campaign promises become part of the public record and a point of reference to which the winning candidate can be held accountable.
For those who have already made up their mind, debates provide the stage to cheer for the candidate they support and heckle the other camp. For the undecided, a public debate can lead to an informed voting decision. Clichés are clichés for a reason.
But UOG’s Great Debate is not exactly for the jaded. It targets new voters— which makes it crucial— specifically the students who may not be keeping abreast of current events. They are political virgins, eager to absorb whatever candidates may have to say, ready to pick their team and be part of the cheering or jeering squads.
The next Great Debate will take place in 2026, assuming that debates have not completely lost their relevance to the political process.
Otherwise, we can just wait for the real Super Bowl or pick trending series on Netflix.