The economy may be reeling, but these are boom times for lectern manufacturers. Every night, over-rehearsed candidates square off in televised campaign debates and battle questions from doggedly serious local reporters and painfully earnest "ordinary" voters. In a political season dominated by 30-second attack ads, stealth candidates who rarely campaign outside TV studios (yes, Christine O'Donnell, this is you) and shadowy corporate spending, debates represent the last best hope of the voters to transcend glib gimmickry and slippery sound bites in the quest for (yikes!) the truth.
But as campaigns have become nationalized and Senate candidates, in particular, all seem to have been prepped by the same small cadre of handlers, the TV debates themselves have taken on a paint-by-numbers quality. I can testify to this because I have endured a dozen recent televised Senate and House debates. ("And the winner of the 2010 Martyr to Journalism Award is . . .")
Depending on the polls, candidates are either Naughty (relentlessly on the attack like Richard Blumenthal and Linda McMahon in their Connecticut debate last Friday
) or Nice (hypnotically repeating their "I want to grow the economy" mantra). In every debate, candidates are asked what they specifically would do to drain the Red Sea of trillion-dollar deficits. And their answers invariably are so arithmetically awry and mathematically muddled (such as ending earmarks and cutting congressional pay) that they would require an hour of follow-up questions and an on-screen budget calculator to fully refute.
Equally and sadly predictable are the meddlesome hall-monitor debate moderators who interrupt the candidates in the middle of revealing exchanges because, as they invariably put it, "we have to move on." (What are these – campaign debates or wagon trains heading west?). But without exception, debates in which the candidates are seated at the same round table are livelier and more spontaneous than those constructed around Kennedy-and-Nixon-style dueling lecterns. The built-in superiority of these loosely structured round-table rumbles is consistent whether the host is nationally known (George Stephanopoulos moderating an Oct. 6 Florida Senate debate
) or locally renowned (Nancy Karibjanian presiding over a debate for Delaware's vacant at-large House seat
Outsiders vs. Insiders
Watching these debates has revealed the biggest bipartisan cliché of Campaign 2010. It is the bizarre myth that elevating a business executive to the United States Congress will magically create (whoops, the word is "grow") jobs. Do voters actually believe that someone who has thrived in a hierarchical chain-of-command business environment will make an easy job-creating transition to his or her new role as a fledgling legislator in Washington?
But Monday night there was conservative GOP ophthalmologist Rand Paul claiming in his high-voltage Kentucky Senate debate
, "I think my biggest attribute is that I've never held office. I think we have too many people who go and stay for a career. People who have never been in the business world – they don't know how to run a business. They don't know how to meet a payroll." That same evening Colorado Democratic Michael Bennet, facing a tough battle to hold the Senate seat he was appointed to last year, proclaimed in his debate
, "I'm the only person in this race with substantial business experience." Even Democrat Alexei Giannoulias, under heavy fire in the Illinois Senate race because his family's troubled bank made loans to suspected mobsters, still felt compelled to boast in his Sunday "Meet the Press" debate
, "I'm the only candidate in this race who has worked in the private sector."
Self-funded Republican candidates have been particularly heavy-handed in claiming that their job-creation magic would serve as a Miracle-Gro economic elixir in Congress. In his first Senate debate with three-term Wisconsin incumbent Russ Feingold
Friday night, Republican plastics manufacturer Ron Johnson announced, "Sen. Feingold really doesn't have a clue how to create jobs. Why would he? He's been in politics all his life. He's never created a job. I have."
Linda McMahon, the wrestling mogul who has already spent $22 million of her own money in her Senate battle with Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, followed a similar debate script as she said, "I know how to create jobs. I have done that here in Connecticut and I would like Mr. Blumenthal to talk about the jobs that he has created." In his closing statement, Blumenthal fired back with the season's best response to the business-background argument as he drew his own self-serving contrast with McMahon, "She is different from me. She has spent her life building her fortune. I have spent my life helping people build their future."
Last Friday's feisty face-off between Blumenthal and McMahon was the nastiest debate of my dirty dozen, though Sunday's Illinois Senate scrum came close. What was odd about the combative politics of both Blumenthal and McMahon is that they delivered their snarling one-liners without looking at each other, even though they were standing at adjacent lecterns. At times, they both veered close to "and your little dog too" over-kill as they kept the brickbats flying. Challenged by McMahon over a two-decade-old vote in the state legislature, Blumenthal resorted to the campaign's most awkward segue when he said, "If you want to go back to what I was doing in 1989, we can talk about what my opponent was doing about that year when she was tipping off a doctor who worked for her about a federal investigation, a criminal investigation."
Jobs, Social Security, Health Care and Taxes
The leading Democratic cliché of this debate season (and, surprise, it is not pledging unyielding support for Barack Obama) revolves around the beguiling fantasy of bringing back the factory jobs of yesteryear. In a Sept. 29 California Senate radio debate
, three-term Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer declared, "We need to see the words 'Made in America' again." Democrat John Carney used almost identical words in his Delaware House debate, "We need to make things in America again." And Jack Conway, who is battling Rand Paul in Kentucky, repeated the lament of a hardware-store owner who complained that 95 percent of his stock comes from abroad.
Republicans, though, have developed a cookie-cutter response to Democratic attacks over Social Security – they invoke the image of dear old Mom baking cookies.
When Democrat Kendrick Meek accused his GOP rival Marco Rubio of wanting to privatize Social Security in the Florida Senate debate, the Republican responded with practiced indignation. "My mother is 80 years old this month," Rubio announced. "She depends on Social Security. It's her primary source of income. And for you to suggest that I would somehow advocate ideas that would harm her is outrageous and blatantly untrue." Republican Rick Berg, seeking to win the at-large North Dakota House seat, resorted to a similar gambit in an Oct. 4 TV debate
with Democratic incumbent Earl Pomeroy as he said about federal borrowing, "You know who's paying the pensions for my mom and the benefits for the retirees on Social Security? It's the Chinese."
Candidates and their handlers are imitative by nature – and you can hear echoes of prior campaigns and prior presidents in their debate answers. Wisconsin Senate candidate Ron Johnson inadvertently channeled Jimmy Carter (not normally a Republican folk hero) by promising to bring zero-based budgeting to Washington. During the California radio debate, Barbara Boxer borrowed without credit Bill Clinton's 1990s affirmative-action stance ("Mend it, don't end it") and announced that was her position on improving the Obama health-care legislation. About all that was missing was for the Republicans to start claiming that their goal on immigration is to make it "safe, legal and rare," the words Clinton once used to define his abortion position.
Monday night's blast-from-the-past Kentucky Senate debate was filled with deja-vu-all-over-again political sloganeering. Ridiculing Democrat Jack Conway's shifting positions on the estate tax, Rand Paul conjured up the maladroit remark that may have cost John Kerry the White House in 2004. Referring to his Democratic rival, Paul said, "It's a little hard to figure out what his position is on the tax. Now he was for them before he was against them before he was for them." For his part, Conway re-purposed another Clinton slogan, repeatedly announcing during the debate, "We have to put Kentucky first."
The spate of debates that I watched had their weird moments, like Delaware Republican House candidate Glen Urquhart announcing as a telling point of free-market triumph, "There are no capital gains taxes at all in the former Soviet Union." Or Linda McMahon, responding to a debate question about the anti-Castro embargo by saying, "There are probably some here who would like to have Cuban cigars." Democratic Congressman Brad Ellsworth, trailing by double-digits in his effort to win the open Indiana Senate seat, announced during Monday night's debate, "You won't have to worry about term limits with me." It was unclear whether Ellsworth was referring to his term-limits position or the likelihood of his being in Congress in January.
In short, after more than 12 hours of watching campaign debates, I feel like I have stumbled into the Peggy Lee song, "Is That All There Is?" At a time when America is facing its most grievous economic crisis since the 1930s, there is an off-key note of irrelevance to most scripted debate exchanges. Yes, televised debates are still superior to TV spots or about any other form of contemporary campaigning. But, alas, that is not setting the bar very high.
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