WE don’t want to pull a Trebek here and take one side. But we agree with Wagner that the gubernatrorial debate was a debacle and that Pennsylvanians deserve a do-over.
Maybe moderated by an individual with some skill at guiding candidates through a focused exploration of the issues.
To his credit, Trebek admitted that his attempt at leading a conversation rather than a traditional debate was an abject failure.
In an interview with WHP, the CBS affiliate in Harrisburg, Trebek acknowledged that he was “too naive going into this.”
“I thought a conversation would work a lot better,” Trebek said. “It didn’t.”
It really, really didn’t.
We had low expectations for a 45-minute debate during a dinner of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry.
As it turned out, our low expectations were too high.
Trebek started off OK, noting that, “This is not a game show tonight. This is serious stuff.”
That he then waxed on pointlessly for a couple more minutes about his angst over agreeing to moderate the debate should have tipped off those watching to what was to come.
Trebek said he accepted the gig on the condition that he could do it his way. But he also said, “This evening’s not about me.”
If only he had clung to that thought.
Trebek said he hoped we would “discover something new” during the course of the conversation. And we did. We discovered that Alex Trebek can’t moderate a political debate.
The man whom The Atlantic magazine once called “blisteringly intelligent” kept trying to be too clever by half. He managed, almost by accident, to facilitate a few minutes of discussion here and there on the death penalty, business regulation and a few other issues on which the candidates depart.
But, for the most part, this was The Alex Trebek Show.
He prefaced nearly every question with meandering anecdotes: a question about gerrymandering began with his reflections on a trip he made from Lansdale to Wilmington; before asking a question about the nature of modern-day politics, he referred to a “famous Californian filmmaker” who made “some very nasty films about a politician running for office” – in a California gubernatorial election.
Perhaps the most head-scratching moment came when Trebek said he would try to find “areas of agreement” on redistricting, then veered off into his memories of having attended a Catholic boarding school – run by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (a detail we apparently needed to know) – during high school. Not once in three years, while “sharing the same accommodations” with 44 priests (there were so many details in this story) did he or any of the 250 other students (seriously – another detail?) ever encounter any “sexual misbehavior” on the part of those priests.
He pointed out that sexual abuse takes place in college sports, politics and show business, too. Then, perhaps realizing – too late – he’d wandered off into the wilderness, Trebek said, “So enough about that. Let’s get back to the Legislature.”
At that point, Wolf felt moved to interject: “I don’t think you quite finished on the redistricting.”
“Oh, yes,” Trebek said.
Even he had lost the thread.
Trebek said it occurred to him that, if he resided in Pennsylvania, he could not vote in primaries because he’s registered as an independent. He made an ardent case for a severance tax on natural gas – even though, as far as we know, he’s not running for governor of Pennsylvania.
He pontificated on the importance of fully funding education – a point on which we agree, but could have lived without knowing Alex Trebek’s thoughts on the issue.
At one point, Trebek chided Wagner for either worrying too much or too little – we’re honestly not sure – about Pennsylvania’s unfunded public pension liabilities.
“It’s an obligation! ... It’s an obligation! And you have to recognize that and, you have to satisfy that obligation,” Trebek told Wagner.
When Wagner tried to talk about how Pennsylvania might better address the pension problem, Trebek cut him off, asking him to answer how he’d pay for his education plan.
For a while, it seemed as if Trebek had decided he’d just play the part of the incumbent Democratic governor. It was weird. And uncomfortable – for both the candidates and the audience.
Trebek wouldn’t even let the candidates give their closing statements without delivering his own final riff. He suggested that the people of Pennsylvania call the candidates running in the Nov. 6 election, ask them where they stand on the severance tax, and then disregard whether they’re Democrats or Republicans – just vote for the candidate who agrees with them.
We didn’t understand it, either.
Look, we admit that it’s fun to join the pile-on of Trebek. It’s easier to write about the failings of a game show host than about the intricacies of public policy.
But Pennsylvania is facing some serious issues: the opioid crisis, the child sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, that pension problem the candidates were permitted to address in a glancing way, an economy that will lag if we don’t have the skilled workers that employers seek, an education system that is unfairly funded, senior citizens being crushed by property taxes.
Forty-five minutes – or even the 60 minutes or so this debate ended up being because of Trebek’s windiness – were never going to be enough to address the extent of Pennsylvania’s challenges.
This wasn’t the fault of either of the candidates. But Wolf has the power to remedy the situation by agreeing to a second debate.
We’d encourage the governor to do this. Participating in another debate would be the right thing to do for Pennsylvania voters.
And our universities are packed with knowledgeable political science professors who could moderate another debate. No more game show hosts, please. We’ve had our fill.
The LNP | AP