October 12th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

The McCaskill/Talent Debate

Opening Statements: McCaskill opened with a history lesson about Harry Truman, a Democratic Missouri senator during WWII under a Democratic president, going after defense contractors hard on war profiteering, freed up $2 billion that would otherwise have been stolen that was instead used to support the troops. Says that if Harry Truman took that position today, Republicans like Talent would call him "weak" and "cowardly" and "unpatriotic." It's one of her single best arguments. And unfortunately, I count at least two other places, maybe three or four, where she could have come back to it, but she didn't, because she let Talent rattle her and put her on the defensive with his opening statement.

Talent put some meat behind his "bipartisanship" campaign ads, citing four bills that he supported that McCaskill opposed even though the majority of Democrats were on his side. He says she's wrong to oppose the energy bill "he" passed. He says she's wrong to oppose the bill he sponsored to take Sudafed off of open store shelves, that rather than being the purely symbolic meaningless bandaid she said it was that it's really helped in the war on meth. He says she's wrong to oppose the bill he sponsored and got passed that put sharp limits on payday loans and other predatory lending to military personnel. (I'm deeply disappointed that at no point did she ask him, "Why just them?," which was her issue at the time. If payday loan and check cashing and title loan and so forth businesses are destroying servicemen and -women and that's bad, why isn't it bad for the rest of us? Big missed opportunity there for her.) And he says that she's wrong to oppose the Republicans' Medicare drug plan, says it's a lie that it doesn't let Medicare negotiate for lower prices (he's lying), says that it did result in lower prices. Said she's out of touch with the rest of the country, including most Democrats, on these issues, and she spent at least a third of the debate on the defensive on these issues and really only addressed one of them at all well. (See ethanol debate, below.)

Would the Iraq War have been justified even if we'd known there were no WMDs? The context for this question is that Talent put the issue in play himself by giving a speech in which he said what he re-iterated in the debate: that Saddam Hussein was a bad guy, and therefore we were right to invade his country and depose him. Accused Saddam Hussein of "supporting terrorism," that lovely Republican dodge that is technically true, but that leaves most Americans with the false impression that he supported terrorism against us. (Israel: the elephant in the living room that nobody wants to discuss when it comes to the War on Terror.) McCaskill responded by saying no. To my disappointment, not because it's illegal to invade other countries that aren't threatening you, but because it's been expensive in money and lives and made us less safe, not safer. Talent used his rebuttal time to pull out his other big gun of the evening, his other recurring theme: McCaskill "is weak," supports "weakness." And, talk about brazen, actually specifically ridiculed her for defending habeas corpus, by name! Does Jim Talent think that freedom from indefinite arbitrary detention without any show of cause is some trivial technicality that can be set aside at will, that only Americans are entitled to? Does he really expect even the mostly Republican Supreme Court, the one that already weighed in on this in the Hamdan decision, to agree with him on this? I think this counts as the second dumbest thing he said all night; had he been smarter and less rattled, he would have left this attack vague and not stuck his neck out on specifics like this.

Stem Cells: The context to this question, for those of you not in Missouri, is that we have a constitutional amendment on the ballot next month that would prevent the state legislature from outlawing any medical procedure involving stem cells if it's legal on the federal level. Jim Talent's under huge pressure from the country-club Republicans, who support that amendment because they want Washington University and Monsanto and BJC Health Systems to be the hub of their plan to make St. Louis the "Silicon Valley" of biotech; he's under equally huge pressure from the anti-abortion side who want the option to ban embryonic stem cell research at the state level if they fail to stop it at the federal level. Pinning Talent down on to a position on one side or the other has been impossible; until tonight he's done nothing but weasel and waffle and dodge. Oh, and Mike Bush of KSDK-TV went out of his way to phrase the question as rudely as possible: "I have a friend who's dying of Lou Gehrig's disease, ALS, and his doctors think that the only hope he has of survival is embryonic stem cell research. Mr. Talent and Mrs. McCaskill, what would you say to him?"

McCaskill didn't even use her whole allocated time, and didn't need to. She didn't say much more than, "Missouri should never turn its back on medical research of any kind," and didn't need to. Talent, to my vast surprise, finally took a stand. What's more, he's clearly been expecting this question and practicing his answer for a long time, because even though I disagree with him (more about this closer to the election) I have to give him credit for giving an answer that was coherent, intelligent-sounding, clearly well thought out, and absolutely eloquent. Basically he went after embryonic stem cell research at its weakest point, the science, saying that the idea that the best source of stem cells for therapeutic research is human embryos is a decade out of date. He also said that it's likely to be fifteen years before any therapies based on any stem cells reach the public. So then, he asked, shouldn't your friend, if he lives that long, be able to get that treatment without having any moral or ethical questions about whether human embryos were cloned or killed to save his life? All that McCaskill could come back with was to accuse Jim Talent of wanting to put sick people in jail for receiving medical treatment ... which, while more or less true, doesn't do anywhere near as good a job of making the case for her position as Talent did for his. I really thought that this would be the question that Talent imploded on, but he handled it like a pro.

(Maybe he's counting on having raised as much money from the country-club Republicans as he's likely to, and figures it's smart politics to tack to the right on this issue in hopes of protecting his volunteer base and to shore up any leakage in Religious Right turnout because of the Foley scandal -- which, come to think of it, I'm delighted to say didn't come up in this debate. If so, that's pretty cynical of him.)

Should Republicans keep control of the Senate? Why or why not? Talent started off on a riff about "small government," about government as the "junior partner" to volunteer organizations and big business, then lost his ability to keep a straight face. Instead he went back to his opening statement, which he claimed proved that Republicans are more bipartisan than Democrats, that when Republicans are in control more things get done. How he kept a straight face through that answer, I have no idea. McCaskill went after him first on the bipartisanship issue, pointing out that when the Clinton administration asked the Senate for legal authority to tap al Qaeda phone traffic, Talent voted against them because they were Democrats, then voted for the same authority for a Republican president. In his rebuttal, Talent says that it had nothing to do with parties, it had to do with the fact that in the 1990s we weren't at war yet. Wait, I thought it was the Republicans who were accusing the Democrats of wanting to wait until America gets attacked to do something?

McCaskill also used this as an opportunity to use a well-tested Democratic campaign line. "I have friends who tell me they vote Republican because they're fiscally conservative. I ask them, 'How's that been working out for you?'" Talent had nothing on that; in fact, I could make a case that his answer on the ethanol thing proves her right.

Eminent Domain: The Clayton Chamber of Commerce tried to put both candidates on the spot on the use of eminent domain to seize private property for corporate use. Which was a pointless waste of time; both candidates took the same position. They both said that they want the states and cities to deal with it, not the federal government, and they both said that they oppose it, except when they support it, and they both gave substantially the same (meaningless) answer as to what's good versus bad eminent domain for private company use. No, really, other than the fact that Talent was slightly snarkier about the Supreme Court in his answer, they both took exactly the same position, almost word for word ... until Talent changed the subject.

Having nothing useful to say on the subject, Talent used the rest of his time to repeat his opening statement again, then to bash McCaskill for insisting that the NSA pursue warrants for their wiretapping of al Qaeda, saying (again) that, "Weakness is the one thing we cannot show the terrorists." McCaskill used her rebuttal time to respond to the part of his opening statement about the energy bill, saying that she supported the rest of the bill but that wasn't enough for her to be able to stomach a bill that gave billions of dollars in tax breaks and subsidies to the big oil companies at a time when they were making record profits. In response to this, the moderator verbally slapped both candidates hard, making them both apologize for breaking the debate rule that the candidates would only address the moderators, not each other, and the rule that only the moderators get to ask questions, and that they can only use their time to answer the question in front of them. Talent graciously apologized; McCaskill tried to be witty but came off as peevish when she finished her apology with, "But he did it first!" Frankly, I think it's a stupid rule; what's the point of giving them rebuttal time if they can't address each others' attacks?

Mistakes: I love this question. Candidates hate it, for fear their answers will be used against them later. The question was, since both of them have long careers in politics, what's the biggest mistake you ever made in your career and what did you learn from it going forward, what are you going to do differently? To my vast disgust, both candidates started with the same bullcrap non-answer: each listed one of their current top political priorities (banning the filibuster for Talent, more child-support enforcement for McCaskill) and said, "I wish I'd started on this sooner." I wanted to throw a shoe through the screen. But to my pleasant surprise, McCaskill in her answer went on to say that when she was young, she was a lot more brash and confrontational, and that a long career in politics taught her to be more polite than she used to be when dealing with people who disagree. Talent, to my pleasant surprise, admitted in his rebuttal time that he used to think that no Democrats anywhere ever had any good ideas, and he's learned otherwise. So once McCaskill broke the ice, they both actually answered the question, thank Prime. They're still pretty wishy-washy answers, but better than they could have been.

Minorities: The question was, other than campaign year lip-service, why should minorities think that either of you are actually going to actually do anything for them? McCaskill lit up on this one, because it gave her a chance to talk about her record as state auditor, her strongest suit, her big claim to fame. In particular, she reminded the audience that she was the first state official to actually investigate if businesses that claimed to be entitled to minority contracting preferences were actually minority owned and minority run, or were just shell companies for rich white men, and that she caught and cured a lot of fraud in minority contracting. After a lot on that subject, she wrapped up by pointing out that as a state legislator she was one of the first to push the state to divest South African holdings during apartheid, and by claiming that she's got a second-to-none record of promoting minorities to top-ranking staff positions in every office she's ever run. Talent says he voted for increased Medicaid, voted for grants for black colleges, and supports a federal commission to investigate old murder cases from the civil rights era. Ironically, I'm waiting for someone to point out that the other part of Talent's answer should count against him: a bill to make it easier for businesses that claim to be minority owned to qualify for federal certification if they've passed any state at the state level. Um, excuse me, but part of the point of McCaskill's answer was that there's a lot of fraud cheating minorities out of the aid they were promised in those contracts; doesn't Talent's answer amount to making it easier for rich white guys to steal that aid if their states don't have auditors as good as Claire McCaskill was? And her rebuttal time, McCaskill also pointed out that education is a top priority for all minorities, and Talent voted to cut funding for Head Start and to reduce the number of Pell Grants given out.

Direct bilateral talks with Iran or North Korea? Talent said no, because McCaskill supports them, and that means that it's "showing weakness." Says that dictators consider bilateral talks a reward for their saber-rattling. In her answer, McCaskill said yeah, because after all, back when we were having bilateral talks, Iran and North Korea slowed down their nuclear programs, and as soon as we dropped the bilateral talks they went back to full speed ahead on their nukes. Since Talent had thumped her again on "weakness," she took a second to also claim that he's lying when he says she opposes terrorist surveillance ... but, annoyingly, didn't finish that sentence by explaining that it's only warrantless surveillance she opposes. Talent, in his rebuttal time, said that we made a commitment to our regional allies not to engage in bilateral talks while multi-party talks are still going on, that bilateral talks would be a betrayal of our allies. So, to my irritation, even though I agree her, that it really is as simple as the one sentence in her answer where she said, "We should never refuse to talk to anyone, period," I think that Talent did a better job of delivering his answers.

Ethanol: Missouri's a corn-growing state, so unsurprisingly support for ethanol fuels is essential if any candidate expects to get a single vote outside of Kansas City and St. Louis. The questioner cited studies showing that ethanol is too expensive, can't be made cost-effective with oil-based fuels, and asked both candidates why they support it? McCaskill's answer was that US dependence on foreign oil makes it too expensive not to invest in local renewables. She also rattled off a long list of Talent votes that she says were against funding for ethanol, claiming, "I'm the only person on this stage who's never voted against ethanol." In particular, she says she wants to repeal the tax breaks that were given to the oil companies and invest that money in more ethanol, biodeisel, and wind research and development. Talent called the anti-ethanol scientists "oil company propaganda" and took personal credit for persuading the Senate energy committee to ignore the oil companies and support ethanol. This attack on oil companies tax breaks, her second, produced the desired sputter from Talent that McCaskill "supports more taxes." Oh, and in his answer, Talent was able to rattle off a long list of his personal earmarks, of pork-barrel projects related to ethanol or biodeisel that he was able to bring home to Missouri. I mention this because of something I noticed in their closing statements, which I'll mention in a minute.

What to do about rising college costs squeezing out poor families? Answer: not answer the question, dammit. Both of them ignored the "low income" part of the question, answering as if the question had been "squeezing out middle class families." That being said, McCaskill's answer was to rescind the tax cuts for the wealthy and use that money to fully fund the Pell Grants, particularly the Pell Grants because we need to redirect our college aid from back-breaking student loans to actual grants. (There's room for an interesting debate on that point, but I agree with her.) Talent claims (falsely) that he supports the Pell Grant program, and says that research grants (pork) he managed to get made to some universities should have helped those universities not need to raise tuition so much (which obviously isn't true, since those institutions raised tuition just as much as everybody else did). The "tax cuts for the wealthy" thing set him off again, sputtering about how McCaskill wants to raise taxes on middle class people's profits from stock market dividends and stock market capital gains taxes. I love this answer, because it cuts right to the heart of the Republicans' absolutely insane definition of "middle class," namely people who typically make $200k or more per year and who derive most of their income from the stock market. Go figure.

TWA: Even before 9/11, the local airline TWA was suffering because guys at a corrupt brokerage firm had given their personal friend Carl Icahn a ton of money specifically so he could rape that airline to death. The employees got the bankruptcy court to let them try to save it, and they had almost pulled it off. But then the collapse of the dot-com bubble and 9/11 were the one-two punch that cut the number of airline passengers in half, and they went back into bankruptcy. The terms of their "rescue" by American Airlines basically screwed the heck out of the TWA employees who'd invested their own money in saving the company, so both candidates got asked, "What can we do for those people?" Talent said that there were some specific terms in the merger that really screwed the ex-TWA employees and that he and Senator Bond tried to get Congress to intervene, but the House voted them down; he wants to try again. (He didn't add, "even though it's probably too late.") McCaskill gave a half-hearted answer about how maybe we should make any further federal assistance to American contingent on them hiring back the laid-off TWA employees. Neither answer came off as particularly convincing because it really wasn't a fair question; there really isn't much of anything a Senator could do for them at this point. Frankly, they should both have used this as an opportunity to talk about how they would grow the economy to make more jobs to replace the ones that were lost, and to increase demand for air travel thereby. In fact, "how would you grow the economy" is a question that was sorely missing from this whole debate.

Closing Statements: McCaskill said that after 14 years of listening to lobbyists and partisan flacks, Jim Talent is out of touch. She said that if you needed any other proof of that, consider the fact that Talent brags about how prosperous the economy is: tell that to any out-of-work family. She also reminded us that under single-party rule, Congress has gone from fourteen hundred "earmarks," personal Congressmen's and -womens' pork barrel projects, to fourteen thousand -- which is an interesting answer, considering that Jim Talent rattled off something like three to five of those earmarks as proof of his achievements over the course of the debate. She also stuck in a reminder that Talent has voted for things Bush asked him to vote for 94% of the time, and wrapped it all up with the current Democratic slogan that, "we can do better." Jim Talent said that he represents "Missouri values and Missouri interests," repeated his opening statement about those four bills that McCaskill opposes and how wrong she is for that, bragged about his ethanol pork-barrel projects, promised to "recapitalize transportation infrastructure," and promised that Republicans, not Democrats, can "win the war on all fronts," including Afghanistan and Iraq and Iran and South Korea. (And if that doesn't scare you, nothing will.)