Should Oberstar bother with debates?

Democratic Congressman James Oberstar is up for reelection again. He's been representing Minnesota's Eighth District since 1974. That's 18 terms, going on 19. In 2008 he won with 78 percent of the vote and declined all invitations to debate his opponent.

Allow me to repeat, in case the part of your brain that processes civic pride missed the key part of that opening paragraph: Oberstar was overwhelmingly reelected to the U.S. Freaking Congress, even though he refused to attend a single debate.

Prior to Election Day 2008, Oberstar appeared on WDSE-TV's Almanac North program and made a statement that should have been jaw-dropping to anyone who tuned in. Julie Zenner, co-host of the show, asked the congressman why he refused to debate Republican Michael Cummins.

"He claims that he's offered to debate a number of times and that your campaign has refused," Zenner said. "Is that a fair characterization?"

Oberstar responded: "I don't recall. That's a standard gimmick by challengers. (They say) 'I want to have a debate every day.' There's not much to debate with him, frankly. He's a nice fellow. I've met him. I met him up at the Chisholm Fire Days parade. We had a picture taken together with him and his daughters, and he's a very nice fellow. But I don't think there's anything of substance to debate."

Now let's review. First, Oberstar claimed to not remember if Cummins wanted to debate at all. Then, he suggested that Cummins wanted to "have a debate every day."

After declining to participate in any debate, Oberstar actually referred to his opponent's desire to debate as "a gimmick." The public exchange of ideas between political candidates is apparently not something a high-ranking member of the United States Congress should feel obligated to respect in the interest of informing voters, it's just a scheme his opponent used to get attention.

Oberstar also said he didn't think there was "anything of substance to debate," as if there were no issues in contemporary American politics that citizens should have been concerned about.

Has anything changed since then? Will Oberstar give his opponents the time of day in 2010? Will voters even care? Probably not.

Still, a handful of candidates have entered the race. Democrat W.D. Hamm will face Oberstar in the primary election August 10. The winner will go up against Independence Party candidate Timothy Olson, Republican Chip Cravaack and the Constitution Party's Richard Burton in the general election Nov. 2.

Maybe one of those guys will come up with the right gimmick.

Paul Lundgren is a newspaper columnist and a very nice man. His e-mail address is mail@paullundgren.com.