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COVID-19? Protests? Is hosting a debate in Utah worth it?

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Banners promoting next week’s vice presidential debate hang on Kingsbury Hall on the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Wednesday night’s vice presidential debate at the University of Utah will go as scheduled — at least it looks that way right now.

But stay tuned to the news alerts on your phone. This is a COVID-19 world, after all. A last-minute positive test for either candidate might change everything, at which point the millions in public and private money invested in the event would be lost.

As for the folks in Miami and Nashville, hosts to the next two planned presidential debates? Well, stay tuned. President Donald Trump said Tuesday he plans to be in Miami. Doctors might say otherwise. Joe Biden and moderator Steve Scully of C-SPAN might not want to risk it.

And the protesters — they will be here, just as they were in Cleveland. Just hope they remain peaceful.

Some of you might be wondering, is it worth it? What does Utah get out of hosting a vice presidential debate? 

Economic development? Exposure that turns into business? Those things are almost impossible to measure in any way that doesn’t lead to an argument among economists. 

Media exposure? Sure. For a few days leading up to the event, during the event itself and maybe for a few days after, Salt Lake City will be in the news more than usual. 

This one might attract a bigger audience than most vice presidential debates. CNN mentioned that in a story Tuesday, adding “the debate also will be historic in another respect, featuring the first woman of color ever to take the vice presidential debate stage.”

But it mentioned Utah only once. 

Which brings me to a pop quiz. Do you remember perhaps the most iconic moment ever in a vice presidential debate, when Lloyd Bentsen said to Dan Quayle, “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy”? Sure, you do. 

Now, do you remember where that debate was held?

If you said Omaha, you may be a savant. 

Debates aren’t about the host city. The questions are for a national audience. 

But I’m completely missing the point. That’s what the organizers of all this tell me, and they have a good argument.

Scott Howell, a former state lawmaker and a member of the Utah Debate Commission, told me it’s about two words, “civic engagement.” 

“When we look at civic engagement, it’s beyond the dollars,” he said, adding that it goes to a tenet common in many religions, that “it’s better to give back than to receive.”

Another commission member, BYU political science professor Richard Davis, told me it’s possible the state could host more debates in the future, perhaps even one between presidential candidates.

“I think this opens the door,” he said. “Some colleges have done this more than once.”

Howell said the candidates will come away with a greater appreciation for Utah, its people, its spirit of volunteerism and the issues that matter to folks here. 

One of these two candidates could be president someday, he said. If so, they will remember the hosts of a debate that might have launched them.

National political debates didn’t used to be so dicey. They didn’t used to be like the Olympics, subject to the whims of current events.

We went through that, also, remember? When terrorists struck on 9/11, Utah had to wait pensively while the world wondered if it would be safe to travel here, or if terrorists would strike the athletes village. 

In the fall of 2001, I interviewed Colin Powell, who was then secretary of state. He advocated a truce that would allow athletes to travel freely. “Of course, you’re not going to let a terrorist in simply because he’s on a bobsled team,” he said.

That didn’t seem terribly comforting at the time, but the Games went on, and they were a success.

I suppose the Commission on Presidential Debates could decide to hold every future debate in the same place, say, the Kennedy Center in Washington. That would save the trouble and expense of finding new host cities.

But it wouldn’t take a genius to see what would be lost. 

Presidential elections concern the entire nation. They are as important on Redwood Road as they are on 5th Avenue in New York. Not only is it valuable to expose candidates to parts of the nation they otherwise might not see, it’s important for the people in those places to understand their value in national politics.

So, yes, it’s worthwhile to play host city to Wednesday night’s debate. Just don’t get too caught up in the dollars and cents, or the risks.

And hope all the tests are negative.