Skip to content

Senate Debate Watch: Poll-Tested Platitudes and Tired Talking Points

Down-ballot debates have all the spontaneity of Japanese kabuki

Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto and Republican Rep. Joe Heck at a Nevada Senate debate in North Las Vegas on Oct. 14. (Pool Photo by Erik Verduzco/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto and Republican Rep. Joe Heck at a Nevada Senate debate in North Las Vegas on Oct. 14. (Pool Photo by Erik Verduzco/Las Vegas Review-Journal)

The fantasy shimmers. Sure, we’re in the middle of what may be the most depressing presidential campaign since the Civil War. But somewhere in America, candidates must be finding ways to rise above the dreary political battles that have marred the 21st century.

Good luck in discovering this mythical land. After watching five recent Senate debates — all in high-profile races — I got the impression that no one in either party has invented a new talking point since 2010. It is all retro politics built around the familiar debilitating arguments over Obamacare, Social Security, guns, the Supreme Court and abortion.

Asked about Obamacare in a Nevada Senate debate, Rep. Joe Heck invoked the shopworn Republican gospel as he announced, “My position is to repeal, repair and replace the most egregious portions of the law.” In Florida Thursday night, Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy charged that his opponent Sen. Marco Rubio favors “privatizing Social Security and turning Medicare into a voucher.“ 

When GOP Sen. Pat Toomey and Democrat Katie McGinty faced off in their final debate Monday night, the only times either Pennsylvania candidate rose above political boilerplate were to trade insults.

A question by a Temple University student about “green energy” segued into McGinty attacking her opponent for dishonesty: “His whole campaign is based on things that independent fact-checkers have repeatedly chastised the senator [for] because his ads have been untrue, false and misleading.”

[Do Real Voters Believe in ‘Checks and Balances?’]

Toomey began an answer about the Iran deal by saying, “Unfortunately, we know how Katie McGinty was dishonest about her family story, was dishonestly, blatantly so, about the ads coming down and now she’s being dishonest about my record in Congress.”

The point here is not to obsess over the merits of these penny-ante charges. McGinty’s false claim that she was the first person in her family to graduate from a four-year college does not exactly earn top billing in the hierarchy of human mendacity. For those who care about such urgent issues of public policy, McGinty was instead the second person in her blue-collar family of 10 children to earn a bachelor’s degree.

With the polls tight in Pennsylvania, neither candidate dared risk saying anything interesting or unexpected. Instead, Toomey and McGinty, undoubtedly following the advice of their political handlers, stuck to the themes of their attack ads.

As robo-candidates go, it is hard to top former Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh and GOP Rep. Todd Young as they battle for an open seat in Indiana. Their debate last week often seemed like a test to see which candidate could use the word “Hoosier” the most often in a 60-second answer. Young probably won by endlessly bragging about his credentials as “a Hoosier Marine who will fight for your values.”

[The Most Effective Attack of the 2016 Election Cycle]

Underscoring that the Affordable Care Act is an issue that will not die, Young claimed, “We wouldn’t have Obamacare if Evan Bayh didn’t cast the crucial vote.” Of course, that could be said of any Senate Democrat who, like Bayh, voted in 2009 to break a filibuster on the legislation.

All this was a setup for Young’s major charge that Bayh — after he retired from the Senate in 2011 — “took the money … and joined a major lobbying firm in Washington, D.C.” Under fire for his work with a law firm that included advising clients on political strategy, Bayh was technically correct when he responded, “It’s not true that I have ever been a lobbyist. Not true. But Congressman Young is familiar with lots of them. He’s taken $160,000 in campaign contributions from lobbyists.”

These kinds of debates are unlikely to sway many voters, especially since few other than dedicated partisans could bear to watch these ritualistic exchanges. But they do leave viewers hungering for some new issue, some note of moral urgency, as both parties battle for control of the Senate.

Even when the Democrats have the moral high ground — as they do on gun legislation — they often turn the visceral issue of school shootings into poll-tested symbolism. Bayh, Catherine Cortez Masto (running in Nevada) and New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan (running against GOP incumbent Sen. Kelly Ayotte) all stressed in their debates the bogus issue of the ability of people on the no-fly list to buy guns.

[Opinion: Finding Sanity in a N.Y. District 3 Hours North of Trump Tower]

Since there are only about 1,000 Americans on the list (and there is no legal appeal), this theoretical danger is a far cry from a central concern in the battle against gun violence. But it is part of the Democrats’ arsenal in Campaign 2016.

Which is why Hassan in a recent New Hampshire radio debate volunteered, “The biggest difference between us is that Sen. Ayotte has repeatedly [rejected] the opportunity to vote to expand background checks of terrorists.” Ayotte responded in the most predictable way possible, “I strongly support the Second Amendment and there’s a big difference in this race. Gov. Hassan has an ‘F’ rating from the NRA.”

The combination of over-prepped candidates and obvious questions produce campaign debates with all the spontaneity of Japanese kabuki. Everyone knows their parts and recites their lines flawlessly. But, in the end, these debates serve as a reminder that Donald Trump — the bilious billionaire — was tapping into something real when he became the grotesquely flawed symbol of voter rebellion.

Recent Stories

Biden, ‘Big Four’ to meet as spending talks sputter

Alabama IVF ruling spurs a GOP reckoning on conception bills

House to return next week as GOP expects spending bills to pass

FEC reports shine light on Super Tuesday primaries

Editor’s Note: Never mind the Ides of March, beware all of March

Supreme Court to hear arguments on online content moderation