THERE USUALLY is an inverse relationship between the number of candidates on the stage and the usefulness of a debate. Too many people leaves almost no chance for back and forth between two candidates and makes it difficult even for questioners to concentrate on what any one of them says, which means candidates don't get pinned down and challenged the way they should.
So combine 10 candidates, from both parties, with a debate a year out from the Republican-Democratic match-up, and last week's gubernatorial debate had all the makings of a colossal waste of time.
Surprisingly, it wasn't. I'm not saying we learned enough about the candidates even to get a good start on the winnowing process, but I think it probably was useful to be able to see them all in one place, just this once, to help us form general impressions.
Not surprisingly, the debate was most effective at giving a feel for the candidates - which wasn't necessarily a good thing for most of them.
I tend to judge candidates by their ideas and intelligence, their integrity and principles. But for most people, at least as important is how they look and sound, and on this count, there were some real surprises. Dwight Drake, one of the most successful lobbyists and lawyers in the state, seemed unpolished. Attorney General Henry McMaster and Education Superintendent Jim Rex came off at some points as comfortingly calm and low-key, other times as plodding. Sen. Vincent Sheheen seemed to lack dynamism and heft. Sen. Larry Grooms, on the other hand, was much too eager a beaver, while Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer sometimes tripped over the line between giving detailed answers and trying too hard.
On more substantive matters, we learned that most if not all of the candidates support nuclear power, which would be great if the governor were in much of a position to do anything about that, and that nearly everybody accepts either that human beings are playing a role in global climate change or at least that something needs to be done about it - which shouldn't be a surprise but is, at least for the four Republicans who refused to pander to the science-deniers in the base like Sen. Grooms did.
We also learned, from Rep. Nikki Haley, that "the reason Boeing came is because we dealt with the small business income tax." If sarcasm worked in print, I could leave it at that, but it doesn't, so I'll explain: That might be the dumbest thing anyone said all night. Yes, Boeing cared about our anti-union laws, as she said. But I promise you, it does not care that the Legislature (wisely) reduced the income tax for limited liability corporations to match the rate for giant corporations such as ... Boeing. That is a naked attempt to use Boeing to advance a completely unrelated matter - which I'm sure we will get plenty of in the coming months.
And we learned that Mr. Drake played a key role in ending South Carolina's status as the nation's nuclear dump. Apparently he managed to work on "one of the things I was proudest to have been a part of" before and after he got paid to torpedo the effort. Oh, sorry; sarcasm again. This wasn't a dumb statement. It was a naked attempt at whitewashing some of the more unsavory aspects of his lobbying career, in this case working to convince the Legislature to bust up a deadline for other states to stop dumping their waste in our state.
But what I found most fascinating was the way the candidates treated the Department of Health and Environmental Control. Now, I understand that I'm more interested in this topic than most. And that the current governor has torpedoed any chance of making serious progress in the near future on giving governors more authority over the executive branch of government. But if the candidates are going to talk about this, I'm going to pay attention.
Some candidates gave the expected answers. Sen. Sheheen remained Mr. Restructuring; Sen. Robert Ford remained Mr. Anti-Restructuring. The agency does "a wonderful job," he said at one point, making him perhaps the only person in South Carolina who believes that outside the agency's director and the members of its governing board, who are appointed by but cannot be removed by the governor.
But Mr. Drake, one of the biggest defenders of the status quo during the restructuring debates of the early 1990s, unequivocally supported letting the governor hire - and fire - the agency director, which he correctly said would not solve all the problems but could improve public confidence in an agency that is seen as a lapdog of industry, frequently manipulated by individual legislators looking out for their own personal interests.
Mr. McMaster, on the other hand, was adamantly opposed to changing the agency's structure, which I didn't see coming as I had put him in the restructuring camp. Moreover, he and Dr. Rex both made the same nonsensical argument: that the key to "fixing DHEC" (which means very different things to Democrats and to Republicans) was for the governor to exercise leadership - which of course a governor has a hard time doing since he can't threaten to remove people who don't respond to his leadership.
Speaking of illogical arguments, Mr. Bauer likewise argued that giving the governor control of the agency won't fix any problems - which wouldn't sound so strange if he hadn't tried to illustrate his point by talking about all he's been able to do to improve the Commission on Aging since he convinced the Legislature to give him control of that agency.