Editorial: Wolf-Wagner debate was Trebek’s game

October 3, 2018

Moderator Alex Trebek, center, speaks during a gubernatorial debate between Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, right, and Republican Scott Wagner in Hershey, Pa., Monday, Oct. 1, 2018. The debate is hosted by the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

How do you lose a gubernatorial debate when you’re not running? Ask Alex Trebek.

When GOP nominee Scott Wagner faced off with Gov. Tom Wolf in Hershey on Monday, the lines were drawn, the sides were chosen and none of the answers were that surprising.

Wagner’s answers were true to his positions, and hewed close to his campaign talking points. The governor likewise continued his policy of sticking close to his record.

But the “Jeopardy!” host running the show did something that seldom happens in debates, which are more often moderated by journalists. He was politely (he is Canadian, after all) but bulldog-ishly opinionated.

After complimenting the two on their civility following their opening statements, Trebek popped out a $1,000 question in short order. He noted the ugliness of the campaign rhetoric so far and gave them a chance to get out.

“There has been a great deal of trash talking back and forth,” Trebek said. “Have you ever said anything negative about your opponent that you knew was not true?”

Both said no.

“You have to realize if we ... were to believe everything you say about each other, we’d have trouble voting for either one of you,” he said. “If you don’t raise the level of discourse, the people have to make a choice, and they don’t want to choose the lesser of two evils. ... After the election, they want to have respect for you.”

He called Wagner on his proposal to do 67 debates, one in each Pennsylvania county, asking if that was serious or just an attempt to “stick it” to Wolf. He pushed Wolf on his campaign’s repeated statements that Wagner was the worst of Harrisburg, and how someone who had only been in the state senate for four years had racked up that kind of rank.

Trebek showed knowledge of Pennsylvania politics, state policy and recent history. He could have scored a Daily Double in categories like gerrymandering and capital punishment. The problem was, he wasn’t supposed to be playing the game.

At times, the debate seemed like it was between Wagner and Trebek more than Wagner and Wolf. In fact, some have been critical of Trebek’s performance, including the Washington Post, PennLive and the York Daily Record largely based on the amount of time he talked.

But Trebek said from the beginning he did not want a traditional debate but a conversation. People seem surprised that involved so much chat from the host. Apparently they don’t watch Trebek’s show.

Most critique, like that from the Reading Eagle, said Pennsylvanians didn’t get a look at the two candidates that they wanted and that it was “more entertainment than debate.”

Let’s be honest. This was the one and only debate. It ran on PCN and was competing against Monday Night Football. Even if Trebek never opened his mouth, how many voters were going to hear anything? There could only have been fewer viewers in Pennsylvania if the Steelers or Eagles were playing.

Trebek has been a television personality for 55 years. He has hosted “Jeopardy!” since 1984. The PA Chamber of Business and Industry should have known what they were getting. And maybe they did. Maybe more people are hearing about what happened -- or didn’t happen -- because of the attention Trebek’s hosting garnered.

The debate is not the campaign. It’s just a piece, like when Trebek talks to the contestants after the commercial break. The candidates still have time to focus on their issues before “Final Jeopardy” on Nov. 6.

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