Sunday, October 26, 2008

Robinson-Tiberi Debate Post

Thursday Night (lo, those many nights ago) I had the pleasure of being in the studio audience when Pat Tiberi and David Robinson had their second debate live on WOSU. The most pleasurable part was probably watching Mike Thompson moderate a debate, it was the best performance by a moderator that I've seen in quite a while. Although Robinson was better on the issues and held his own on style, it was probably not the game-changer (to use one of the most over-used terms this cycle) I'd hoped for.

See, Pat was being Pat. And Pat is well aware that a lot of people like that. If I'm going to continue writing about politics, it is imperative that I figure out why. Pat mentioned the name "Nancy Pelosi" 9 times during the debate, by my count. I'll have to watch the video when it goes up, but that might be more times than he uttered "Ohio." It was definitely more times than he uttered "middle class," "foreclosure," or "unemployment."

Pat pointed out that G.W. Bush is not running in this election. I'm pretty sure that Ms. Pelosi won't be on my ballot either, but that didn't slow Pat down one iota. I simply don't understand who responds to this, but somebody must. I heard that McCain was blasting Pelosi in Zanesville this weekend. Tiberi has been an advisor to McCain re: campaigning in Ohio, so it's quite possible that McCain was merely following Tiberi's advice: What Central Ohioans care about above all is... Nancy Pelosi.

Pat blamed Ms. Pelosi for, among other things, putting an "artificial deadline" on the first financial rescue bill because she wanted to recess for "the Jewish Holidays." Apparently this deadline is artificial either because "Jewish Holidays" are artificial holidays, or because Pat thinks that the spiritual injunction against members of the Jewish faith laboring on Rosh Hashanah is a frivolous reason to schedule a recess.

When Pat was asked about bringing jobs to Central Ohio, he couldn't blame Nancy Pelosi. He implied that the blame belongs to... Ted Strickland. He said that Congress couldn't be held responsible for the lousy business environment in Ohio that apparently has nothing to do with years of one-party Republican rule and continued GOP majorities in both state chambers, but apparently has to do with the fact that Ted Strickland hasn't cut taxes during a budget crisis. Pat's position is that Congress can do some things to bring jobs to/keep jobs in the U.S., but that it's irrelevant because they'd just go to South Carolina anyway.

Every time he was asked about his responsibilities, he blamed Pelosi, the U.S. Senate, or Ohio politicians. He even claimed to be giving his opponent a "civics lesson" when he claimed that the House didn't get a chance to vote on a bill because the Senate didn't have a filibuster-proof majority. Robinson pointed out that the bill hadn't actually made it out of committee in the Senate, a point which Pat conceded. If Pat had continued his "civics lesson," he might have explained that while a minority party in the Senate can keep a bill from passing in the Senate, a majority party, in this case the GOP, can move a bill out of committee on a straight party line vote.

But all in all, it wasn't Tiberi's arrogance, or his lack of personal accountability, or his Fox News partisanship that bothered me the most. I'm used to these things, and I'm somewhat resigned to the idea that he gets a pass on these things from many folks. In fact, in terms of TV debate tactics, they are all pretty strategically effective. What bothered me most was Pat's take on what is supposed to be his signature issue: Entitlements.

Pat is screaming that the Social Security Trustees are insisting that the system has needed to be fixed for years, but that Congress (excluding, presumably, Pat) has not taken the warnings seriously. Pat's idea of serious? Calling Social Security a "sacred bond," insisting that the promise is not keepable, and offering not even the vaguest of proposals for preserving Social Security. He took a cheap shot at Robinson's hometown ("raising the retirement age might be easy for you growing up in a wealthy community like Arlington...") when it was suggested that the retirement age should be looked at, andthat incremental cap increases would go a long way toward bridging any shortfall. He denied wanting to privatize Social Security, despite his support for Bush's plan in 2004 that was widely seen as a privitization scheme. He insisted that he "didn't want to Privatize Social Security", he wanted to "make it Better." Many conservatives believe that privatizing SS would, in fact, make it better, and Pat offered no specifics on how his vague and generic "make it better" ideas would be different than Bush's 2004 plan. He did say that he thinks SS should be more like the Ohio Public Employees Retirement System, which is popular among its members. I can guarantee you, however, that it is not nearly as popular in a market freefall as it was a few years ago. How can Pat get away with claiming to be in the "serious" minority when he has absolutely no ideas that he's willing to share with the public and dismisses other people's ideas out-of-hand? It's because he favors creating a bi-partisan commission like the base-closing commission to come up with ideas. First of all, this means that he is serious about having other people come up with ideas. Second, Pat is again showing that he was fine with party-line votes when he was in the majority, but prefers bi-partisan power-sharing when he is in the minority. While I happen to agree that a bi-partisan set of recommendations are going to be the only way to modify SS in the face of demographic changes, it happens to be a tad bit too convenient for someone who supported the Karl Rove notion of a GWB mandate for conservative SS reform to want a bi-partisan commission now.

But you know what? That pales in comparison to Medicare. Medicare is a much larger problem looming on the horizon than Social Security, and no serious discussion of entitlements should focus on SS over Medicare. Pat voted for what I believe is the largest Medicare spending increase ever, in the form of the Medicare prescription drug benefit. Pat vehemently defended preventing Medicare from negotiating for better drug prices on the grounds that "seniors want choices." Pat does not favor a national health care system in which the healthy young people paying into the system at least get their own health care needs covered while subsidizing the much greater costs to care for senior citizens. In short, Pat says he favors a high-cost, quality-prioritized-over-affordability, comprehensive health care program for an exploding senior citizen population. Which would be a defensible position, except that Pat thinks that the amount we're spending will lead to an extraordinary crisis, and he is vehemently opposed to increasing taxes or fees to pay for it. This may be a politically popular contortion, and it is certainly not unique to Tiberi, but it is absolutely the embodiment of the problem, and it in no way resembles being "serious" about solving anything.

This pretty much exemplifies one of the paradoxes of modern politics. The first arrow out of the typical politician's quiver is an attack on "typical politicians." David Robinson is offering a platform right out of the mainstream on current issues: Expand alternative energy, re-examine trade deals in terms of labor and environmental standards, support for health-care and taxation plans in line with Barack Obama's. Pat is offering up the argument that people don't like Congress because they think it's partisan, gets little accomplished, is ignoring real problems, and attempts to solve the government's problems at the expense of citizen's well-being, and by gosh they're right! It remains to be seen whether a majority of voters in the 12th think that a) blaming the other party exclusively for 'partisanship,' with a complete disregard of the irony, b) blaming everyone besides House Republicans for his and their inability to get things accomplished, c) claiming to think really hard about real problems, and d) favoring a tax plan that redistributes wealth from the middle-class to the wealthy, packaged together in the form of an individual who has been in that reviled Congress for 8 years already, is the best way to communicate that displeasure to Washington.

From what I hear, most people who know Pat personally, like Pat personally, and there's certainly something to be said for that. I don't know Mr. Tiberi personally, just through his voting record, his public statements and appearances, his campaign materials, and his debate performances. Every year he grows more partisan, more mean-spirited, more orthodoxically Republican, and less in touch with the character of his district. It's possible that some folks would tend to agree with David Robinson on the bulk of the issues where the candidates differ, and would be better represented in the most literal sense by Robinson in Congress, but are planning to vote for Pat because, well, they like the guy. Something for those folks to consider - He may not have gone to D.C. as a typical politician, but D.C. has undeniably turned him into one, and the process is accelerating. It may very well not be in Pat's personal best interest to get re-elected. It may be tough love, but he won't be in the booth with you when you cast your ballot.

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