Jon Ossoff, the Democratic candidate in one of Georgia’s two Senate runoffs, was supposed to debate his opponent on Sunday. But Republican incumbent David Perdue decided not to show. According to the rules of the debate host, the Atlanta Press Club, if any candidate refuses to participate in its debate, the debate moves forward, with no-show represented by an empty podium.
This left Ossoff in a doubly advantageous position. Not only would he get a half-hour of free solo airtime, but he’d also get to say his piece next to a literal symbol of Perdue’s fragility.
On Sunday, Ossoff made much of the senator’s absence. He called Perdue a “coward” who “feels entitled to your vote” and doesn’t believe he has to earn it. “Sen. Perdue, I suppose, doesn’t feel that he can handle himself in debate, or perhaps is concerned that he may incriminate himself in debate,” Ossoff said, referring to the federal probe into alleged insider trading by Perdue. “Both of which, in my opinion, are disqualifying for a U.S. senator seeking reelection.”
The spectacle of a man debating an empty podium was ridiculous, and there were plenty of opportunities for viewers to remember that one of the guys running to represent them in the Senate would not deign to address his challenger. When host Russ Spencer of FOX 5 Atlanta introduced Perdue and explained his absence, the camera paused on Perdue’s podium and microphone, just as it did for Ossoff’s, even though no one was standing there. Whenever Ossoff mentioned Perdue and gestured toward that empty podium, the camera returned to that blank space.
But the evening wasn’t as dramatic as it could have been. Ossoff didn’t get indignant about the absurd pageant he was asked to participate in. When the moderators gave Ossoff the opportunity to ask imaginary Perdue a question and answer it himself—a hilarious modification of a segment wherein, under normal circumstances, the candidates would question one another—he simply wondered aloud why the senator has repeatedly opposed providing $1,200 stimulus checks to all eligible Americans. (What, Ossoff’s got no Perdue impression up his sleeve?) He didn’t go off on an empty chair, Clint Eastwood–style. And ultimately, without two people to give different answers to questions and address one other about their differences—you know, without two people there to debate—the half hour was filled with a series of talking points uttered by a reasonably-but-not-earth-shatteringly charismatic candidate. Whatever righteous vim Ossoff is able to muster with either an opponent onstage or an audience in front of him, he couldn’t reproduce on his own.
Ossoff was well prepared—as he should be, since this is the second race he’s run in Georgia in three years.* And since he’s never held public office, the journalists guiding the debate—Greg Bluestein of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Lisa Rayam of WABE—didn’t have a record to scrutinize. He ably answered questions that, without an opponent, seemed like softballs: “What would a solid relief package look like?” (Another round of stimulus checks, extending and expanding the Paycheck Protection Program, and a larger infrastructure and jobs package.) “How would you pay for your [climate change] proposals?” (Congress would appropriate the funds!) “How would you play a specific role in restoring the faith lost in democracy?” (Raise the minimum wage and reduce corporate influence in government.)
Ossoff consistently returned to the theme of corruption, explaining how corporate interests and their friends in Congress work in tandem to prevent action on climate change and affordable health care. When asked by Rayam why he continues to call Perdue a “crook” despite the fact that the insider-trading investigation returned no charges, Ossoff said that since Perdue hasn’t been expressly exonerated, as the senator claims, all Ossoff knows is that Perdue hasn’t been indicted yet—making him a game target of Ossoff’s anti-corruption spiels. “The same senator who’s not here today, who hasn’t held a single public town hall meeting in six years—he openly sells access for corporate PAC checks,” Ossoff said. “He sells four meetings a year and a retreat on a private island for a $7,500 corporate PAC check.”
But even Ossoff’s most cutting remarks fell a little bit flat without the senator there to absorb them in real time. Yes, Perdue looked like a scaredy-cat and a jerk for refusing to debate his opponent, but plenty of voters simply won’t notice (I suspect fewer people will have tuned in for The Jon Ossoff Show than would have for an actual debate) or care (the ability to confront criticism isn’t exactly a must-have in today’s Republican Party). That viral clip from a Perdue-Ossoff debate held before the November election, in which Ossoff rips into Perdue for a variety of terrible things he’s done, was compelling in large part because Perdue’s face is visible on the split screen. You can see him shifting in discomfort, waiting for his turn to speak, staring down the camera as he receives a brutal beating from a guy half his age. For people who don’t like Perdue, it’s a cathartic and energizing watch, and for everyone else, it’s simply good TV! Watching Ossoff criticize Perdue in absentia just doesn’t hit the same.
So maybe it was the right move for Perdue to refuse to do the thing all public officials owe it to their constituents to do. When you’ve given up trying to win your election on the merits, the best you can do is rob your haters of schadenfreude.
Correction, Dec. 7, 2020: This piece originally misstated that Jon Ossoff’s current Senate run was his second statewide race. His first race in Georgia was for a House seat in the state’s 6th Congressional District.