Tonight I attended the fourth debate between Joe Kennedy and Sean Bielat, the two remaining candidates in Massachusetts’ 4th Congressional District, held at Wellesley College. The League of Women Voters moderated the debate (Gregory, Lehrer et al. could learn from them) and asked questions the League had generated and that were suggested by audience members. As the debate wore on, audience members asked some questions directly.
These candidates, though they agree on little, have been quite civil in their debates and tonight was no different. I can’t say the same for one audience member. The low point of the evening was the last question. An older gentleman said (I paraphrase): “It’s often said those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. About 50 years ago, in another Massachusetts campaign, the question was asked ‘If your name were Edward Moore and not Edward Moore Kennedy, wouldn’t your candidacy be a joke?’ And so I ask both candidates, if Mr. Kennedy were Joseph Patrick instead of Joseph Patrick Kennedy, wouldn’t his candidacy be a joke?”
The audience booed loudly, and even Bielat supporters near me expressed disgust. Kennedy answered, to large cheers, by defending his record quite passionately. He said he was proud of his work in the Peace Corps and as an ADA. Bielat quickly disavowed any suggestion that “Joe’s candidacy is a joke or that Joe’s a joke,” but said he believed his experience, particularly in the private sector, made him the better candidate. He also said that he didn’t think another candidate with Kennedy’s resume would have raised $4 million, and said someone who didn’t know his opponent’s identity said, based on resume, that Kennedy had no chance. Kennedy responded that they are both in their thirties, and that the election is about two very different visions for where our country should go.
Here’s a summary of the debate on the issues. I’ve tried to be fair but I don’t pretend it’s exhaustive.
Economic issues: Fairly predictable. Both candidates spoke of the need for tax and regulatory certainty, though Bielat defined this as “tax relief” and Kennedy focused on asking the wealthy to pay their fair share. Kennedy stressed the “balanced approach” and said that, while there are aspects of Simpson-Bowles he likes, there are others he doesn’t support. He specifically cited the proposed benefit reductions in Social Security. Kennedy also referenced small business a lot. Bielat argued that “Obamacare” is the single biggest driver of uncertainty for small businesses, and claimed small business owners on the trail tell him they don’t know what to expect. He also repeated the notion that the Affordable Care Act creates “18″ or “20″ new taxes. They agreed that the sequestration cuts would be bad, and Kennedy expressed hope that an agreement could be reached in a lame duck session to avert them.
Kennedy referred to the need for training to match the unemployed with jobs that are going unfilled for lack of applicants with the proper training. Bielat said lack of education is not the problem, the economy is just lousy. Kennedy defended Obama’s performance, saying Bush inherited a surplus and left Obama with not only a trillion-dollar deficit but an economy shedding 800,000 jobs his first month. He said things are getting better slowly but surely.
Bielat pre-emptively stated that Kennedy would accuse him of supporting “the Ryan budget” but that it’s not that simple. He is on record as supporting some aspects of the Ryan budget and called it a good starting point. In the last debate Bielat cited cuts to Pell Grants as something in the Ryan budget he opposes. Kennedy cited a number of things that are objectionable in the Ryan budget (notably voucher-izing Medicare to seniors’ detriment, steep Medicaid cuts, Head Start cuts, education cuts and large tax cuts for the wealthy). Bielat said he recently read the 90-page summary and didn’t see any of those things in there. He also said trying to tie him to the Ryan budget is part of the hyper-demonizing we need to move away from.
Healthcare: In response to a question about support for “universal healthcare,” which my wife and I took to mean “single payer” or something like it, Kennedy launched into a defense of the Affordable Care Act/Massachusetts model. He said keeping costs down was of supreme importance for our whole economy. Bielat said he thinks “Romneycare” is great for Massachusetts, but shouldn’t be imposed on the whole nation, and repeated that “Obamacare” imposes new taxes. He said he’d vote to repeal the national Affordable Care Act.
Education: Answering a question about access to quality education for all districts, not just affluent ones, Kennedy said it’s important to give every child, no matter where from, the best chance at success. He said that can be done through adequate and equitable funding and accountability at all levels. He brought up Head Start as a program that helps kids come to school ready to do the work, and criticized proposed cuts under the Ryan budget. Bielat supported school choice via vouchers, etc., citing Michelle Rhee in DC as an example, and accountability. He said his mother took a pay cut to teach in a Catholic school instead of a public school because she didn’t like the teachers’ union protecting incompetent teachers. Kennedy defended the teachers’ unions, which he said have been working with the state and districts here in Massachusetts to better serve our kids.
“Women’s issues”: In response to a question largely about reproductive choice, Bielat candidly admitted that he is pro-life before attempting to redirect the question by redefining “women’s issues” as primarily economic issues. Kennedy said that, while economic issues are very important and have received a great deal of attention during the campaign, reproductive choice was an area of key difference between him and Bielat. He stressed that he strongly believes government has no role in interfering with a woman’s ability to consult with her doctor on private health decisions and make her own decisions. He also pointed out that the current GOP House has, since 2011, voted 10 times to curtail reproductive rights.
Bi-partisan happy fun: An audience member, seemingly supportive of Kennedy, asked if Bielat could be sufficiently independent to represent Massachusetts or if he’d be tied to the national GOP. Bielat said he is not getting national Republican money (which to be fair is because they are focused on other races, not because he’s not Republican enough for them) and that Kennedy’s debate “talking points” are straight from the DCCC website. He said he’d work with whomever, and identified points of distinction from his party (rejects Norquist pledge, some military issues). He suggested Kennedy would be a more partisan Democrat. Kennedy in turn cited three specific GOP Reps that he agrees with some issues and said he’d be eager to find common ground with them.
Gun Control: Kennedy said he supports Second Amendment rights for individuals (which, as I recall, were only invented by the Roberts Court in the past few years), but that reasonable restrictions on guns are by definition reasonable. He said he wished President Obama had done more in this area, and that he supports restoration of the assault-weapons ban, elimination of the gun show and private sale loopholes, and other reasonable steps to regulate weapons, including making sure they cannot be obtained by the mentally ill. Bielat said we all deplore tragedies like the Aurora and Arizona shootings, but that we can do a better job of enforcing the laws on the books rather than pass new legislation. He focused on Kennedy’s remark about the “mentally ill” to suggest it would be hard to work out who is mentally ill (“Would one visit to a psychiatrist be enough?”) or who should make the determination. My sense was that he skirted the issue for the most part.
Congressional approval/oversight of military action: Kennedy said that getting Congressional approval for military strikes is difficult given partisan gridlock in Congress and that the executive would fill the vacuum. He said, without specifying, that he supported “more” oversight by Congress. Bielat said this issue is important to him and he believes Congress in recent decades has failed to be a check on the use of force abroad as intended in the Constitution. He said Congress is the best check on use of force the public doesn’t support, and that we would not have used the military in Libya if the public, through its representatives, had been consulted. I thought it was a good answer.
Staying in DC Forever: Someone who seemed a Bielat supporter said he “knew” Bielat was motivated to run by our economic crisis, and asked if Kennedy planned to be in the House forever. Bielat said he ran for many reasons and feels his experience, particularly in business and getting things done, are needed now. He specifically said he didn’t want to stay in Congress all that long. “A couple of terms and then I want to come home.”