On May 12th, former Mayor Willie Herenton withdrew from a debate with Congressman Steve Cohen that had been scheduled for last week on WREG Channel 13. Herenton said he withdrew because he didn't think two of the debate panelists — WREG's Norm Brewer and The Commercial Appeal's Otis Sanford — would be "fair" with him.
Cohen declined another debate, despite Herenton's apparent efforts to goad him into it. On the Flyer's website this week, Jackson Baker reported on an agreement that Herenton had signed with WMC Channel 5. Herenton's terms included demands that both candidates would stand for the entire debate and that anchor Joe Birch could not ask questions. Presumably, Birch's forthright interview with Herenton last summer led the former mayor to decide that Birch wouldn't be "fair" with him, as well.
I am of two minds about this. On one hand, I think it's entirely plausible that Herenton never wanted a debate in the first place and that all of this talk about a second debate is just gamesmanship designed to make it appear that Herenton is willing to go head-to-head and Cohen is not.
The other scenario is that Herenton wanted to debate but failed to recognize his position, namely that he is the underdog and no longer in a position to make demands of any sort.
Incumbents hold the upper hand in these situations. And those with a substantial lead in the polls try to avoid debates, because they have nothing to gain by putting their opponents on an equal footing. If the challenger doesn't have much money, the prospect of giving an opponent free air-time is even less appealing to an incumbent.
For perspective, reverse the roles. Let's say two-term Congressman Willie Herenton is being challenged by upstart Steve Cohen. Let's say further that Cohen backs out of a scheduled debate, saying he can't get "fair" questions from two of the town's premier journalists. Then he starts demanding that Herenton give him a second debate but insists that both candidates be seated and that yet another prominent local journalist be banned as a potential panelist.
Does anyone really think Congressman Herenton would agree to humor his impudent challenger? If so, I have some Banneker Estates property to sell you. If Herenton actually wanted a debate, he was incredibly naive about the nature of realpolitik. If he didn't want a debate, well, he got his wish.