Notes on last night’s Democratic Senate debate

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Last night Ed Markey and Steve Lynch squared off in what was supposed to be their last debate before next Tuesday’s primary. They will debate again tonight because the April 15 debate in Springfield, postponed after last Monday’s bombing, has been rescheduled for this evening.

This time I took some notes. My notes and some thoughts:

Terrorism-Related Issues

The first half of the debate focused on questions of terrorism. Given the events of the past week I was not surprised, though I find the development unfortunate.

Lynch, running out of time and trailing by double digits in every single poll since the race started, came out swinging. In what was easily his most aggressive performance in these debates, Lynch essentially accused Markey of being soft on terrorism. He cited Markey’s votes against various anti-terrorism bills that passed with only a handful of votes in opposition. In particular, he pointed to the cooperation between federal, state, and local agencies this past week, and accused Markey of having voted against the Joint Inter-Agency Homeland Security Task Force and against port security.

Markey seemed, to me as a viewer (and to Christopher), insufficiently unprepared for this line of attack. He focused on his efforts to create laws requiring screening of all cargo entering the United States before it got within 10 miles of the coast and calling for more security at nuclear and chemical plants. He said the Bush Administration and the affected industries had fought him every step of the way, but he pushed on and got laws passed. He also called himself an early and vocal proponent of inter-agency cooperation.

Lynch would not relent. In response to Markey’s characterization of himself as a “hard-liner” on homeland security issues, Lynch said “An extremist, I would say.” Lynch also said several times, “I don’t know how you’re going to spin it. You voted ‘no’ and I voted ‘yes.’” Markey said, not as strongly as he could have, that “if” he voted no, it was because the bills didn’t go far enough to ensure safety. This earned him a “You gotta be kidding me!” from Lynch.

Here’s the thing: it’s true. As I found last night, in 2006 Markey was one of two House members to vote against a port security bill. According to the May 4, 2006 Washington Post, Rep. (now Sen.) Jeff Flake of Arizona said it would cost too much; Markey “contended that the bill does not go far enough to ensure the safety of vulnerable seaports.” JohnK added, on Christopher’s thread, the point that Markey’s Congressional website contains a press release from 2006 saying:

If we fail to scan 100 percent of cargo overseas, before it is loaded aboard container ships headed for our shores, we’re not just ‘missing the boat’; we could be missing the bomb, with devastating consequences for our country.

Markey’s spokesman told the Globe after the debate that he voted against the 2002 Joint Inter-Agency Homeland Security Task Force because the bill (in the GOP-controlled House) gave the military too much power over domestic law enforcement.

They both supported the decision to try Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in civilian courts, rather than before a military tribunal. As Christopher noted, neither made a full-throated defense of due process. Markey deferred to the decision made by Obama and the DOJ, saying he trusted them to get it right. Lynch said there’s enough evidence to convict Tsarnaev in civilian courts (is that the standard? – I hope not) and that we have competent prosecutors. He added that it can be harder to convict people who are in the legal limbo of Guantanamo and “enemy combatant” status.

Both took nuanced positions about adding more surveillance cameras in Boston. Lynch, noting the question compared Boston to New York City, said they’re very different places. New York has far more people, so that – even with more cameras – the huge number of people assures a certain anonymity. He said that in Boston he’d be cautious, adding cameras mostly in places where people have little expectation of privacy. He added that he said he had supported adding cameras to South Station due to the unique risks inherent in rail travel. Markey said he’d be open to more cameras, but that there should be an open debate to balance security and privacy needs, and that the federal government should pay for whatever cameras are added.

Other Security Issues

The candidates were asked what else they’d do to make Americans safe. Markey said there is a $100 billion projected for more nuclear weapons. This and continued NATO spending in Western Europe, he asserted, do not add to our security. He said the threat of Russia invading Germany or France was miniscule and called for us to redeploy resources to meet the real threats we face.

Lynch said crime is “a different kind of terrorism” and cited more than ten young men killed in Boston’s neighborhoods since the bombs went off last Monday. He said we’ve become too immune to such reports and must fight crime. Markey added that 600 Americans, including 52 kids, are killed by guns each week and we must make NRA stand for “not relevant anymore.”

The candidates took similar positions on FISA (wiretapping). Lynch said he’s voted for extensions of up to a year, but against longer extensions because he believes Congress must retain oversight. Markey agreed the lack of a sunset is a problem, and said the Bush administration was using wiretapping in too open-ended a way. They both stressed the importance of judicial oversight, though Lynch indicated the courts might have been a rubber stamp in the years right after 9/11.

Gun Control

Lynch said President Obama’s proposal was very reasonable. He said he’s for reinstating the assault weapons ban (this is another new position for him), for limiting high-capacity magazines, and for background checks. He noted that background checks have 90% support and even the NRA used to support that. He also is for funding for behavioral and psychiatric issues at community health center level, which he said could prevent massacres.

Markey said he’d led the fight on assault weapons, notably a 1994 provision that banned importation of cheap assault weapons from China. He said that high-capacity clips fit for the battlefield have no place near our kids; the only technology that should be near their schools is computers. He added that  you must be ready to build bi-partisan coalitions to get things done on gun control and he has a proven record of that.

Lynch said Markey was overstating his accomplishments because nothing passes the House without 218 votes; it’s not one person making it happen. He again referred to his cousin Brian (read comments here for more on this), who he said was shot to death near Old Colony. Lynch thus returned to a theme he’s pushed, that the Senate should have “just one” member with personal experience of that kind, and that person could win over the others.

Markey noted that many revolutions started in Massachusetts, such as the American Revolution and the abolitionist movement, and that Massachusetts has to take the lead again here. Getting gun control done will require a campaign for public engagement, to keep the issue from dying and make people pay a price for failure to support gun control.

Telecommunications

Lynch came hard, as he has in the past, at Markey’s signature legislative accomplishment, the 1996 Telecommunications Act. Markey said he was proud of the bill and Lynch said that was the problem. He said it’s left a monopoly situation, with a couple of companies (he cited Comcast and Verizon) dominating communications in the northeast. Perhaps taking a page from Tom Steyer’s book, he said people in Western Mass. don’t have broadband and are relegated to watching the Yankees because of the cable TV situation. He also repeated his line about looking at the bill, and said even the thieves on Wall Street are impressed with how successfully Verizon pads bills.

Markey said Lynch’s statement “contained so many red herrings we need an aquarium.” He said that younger voters have no clue what Lynch is talking about, because now people who don’t like Verizon can switch. There are choices in TV and phone service, with companies crossing into each other’s realms and bundling services. There has been a broadband revolution and internet-based TV and phone services have come into being. Before 1996, there was one phone company. Now there’s choice.

Biggest Difference Between Them

The candidates were asked, in essence: “This campaign has mostly been about biography and voting records. What is the biggest policy difference between you?”

Markey cited Obamacare, which he again called the “proudest vote of my career.” Universal healthcare, he said, was the dream of Harry Truman and Ted Kennedy for six decades. This bill eliminates discrimination on the basis of preexisting conditions, expands coverage for children, and helps ensure that being sick won’t make you bankrupt (he said 2/3 of all bankruptcies in 2008 were due to illness). He characterized it as a vote for a fundamental value of the Democratic Party, that healthcare is a right and not a privilege.

Lynch countered that “we got it wrong” , on healthcare. We didn’t force insurance companies to lower prices. Costs keep going up. Employers are running away from providing healthcare to workers. Small business is terrified of healthcare costs and that is hurting the job market. People are losing not only their doctors, but their hospitals.

Then Lynch, rather than naming a single area of divergence, painted a picture of himself as a populist while Markey “has been on the side of big business.” He cited NAFTA,TARP, and the telecommunications law (I’m with the people in Western Mass. who, did I mention, have to watch the Yankees). Fishing perhaps for votes in Gloucester, he added on fishing rights: “I sided with the fishermen, you sided with the fish.” Lynch said that Markey is a “policy guy, I’m with the people.”

Markey responded that all his work is motivated by what he hears from people. He said that, after 9/11 he went to Logan, where flight attendants were huddled at the Hilton. What they needed was cargo screening, so he did that bill for those people. He added that a Telecommunications Act provision pays for 80 to 90% of internet bills in our cities’ schools. That came out of conversations with families in Malden who didn’t have computers at home but wanted the same access to opportunity for their kids.

Markey addressed the TARP issue directly: “I sided with Barack Obama, John Kerry, and Barney Frank on keeping our entire economy from collapsing in 2008. For eight years I opposed the Bush Administration’s policies, which created a casino on Wall Street, but I could not vote to let the whole system collapse.”

Abortion

Markey cited as another key difference that he has a strong pro-choice record, while Lynch has been opposed to choice.

Lynch countered with what I consider one of the most disingenuous lines of attacks I’ve seen in a while: “You sponsored an amendment in the U.S. Congress to overturn Roe v. Wade and voted to deny victims of rape or incest the right to an abortion.” The problem is that those votes came in the mid-1970s. If we’re going back that far, I guess Steve Lynch is still a guy who punches people just for being Iranian.

Markey countered that he had voted consistently pro-choice for 30 years, and that’s why he has been endorsed by NARAL and Planned Parenthood. He noted that, in the past three years or so, Lynch voted for the restrictive Stupak amendment and against abortion rights on military bases.

Lynch reiterated his strange position on the military base question, stating more clearly than last time that there is coercion on a military base, where deference to superior officers is required, and women are better off coming home if they want an abortion. (No explanation of how the commanding officer who wouldn’t let her get an abortion on the base would sign off on that.) Markey said that women defending our country should be free to make their own decision. He added that harassment and abuse of women in the military is one of its biggest problems, and an officer trying to deny a woman her right to choose should be fired.

Lynch sputtered that if women are being abused they should be gotten off the base, but the debate ended quite abruptly right there and there was no time for further exploration.

Random Thoughts

Time will tell if Lynch’s Max Cleland tactics will work. Unfortunately, the Globe‘s headline, one replicated in most papers around the state, is “Lynch hits Markey on national security votes” and the story says Lynch put Markey “on the defensive.” If I’m Markey, I’m ready to hit back – hard – on this in tonight’s debate.

I’m also hitting back hard on abortion rights. I don’t know why, three debates in, Markey doesn’t have a clear, strong paragraph memorized when Lynch tries to portray him as the real anti-choice candidate:

“Steve, to paper over your own record you’re talking about things from 1977. My record for the past three decades speaks for itself, and so does yours. That’s why NARAL and PP have endorsed me. They know who’s been on their side and who hasn’t.”

These lines of attack seem to be part of a pattern for Lynch, who has left me both impressed and unimpressed during these debates. He has impressed me with his ability to use bullshit and distortion in a slick way that might sound reasonable to many voters. For that same reason he has not impressed me with, to use a word that should be used cautiously around politicians, his character.

I’m sure this approach is having at least some effect and there’s a chance, on April 30, it will carry the day. This is a problem with our politics, perhaps the major one: most of the public lacks the time or the inclination to delve into the details of these votes.

  • Lynch calls Markey’s TARP vote, siding with the bankers over the people. Markey says it was to avoid the total collapse of our financial system.
  • Lynch calls Markey’s vote against the port security bill a vote against making us safer, Markey says (and the record indicates) it was a vote against a bill that didn’t make us safe enough.
  • In a reversal of the TARP situation, Markey calls Lynch’s vote for the sequestration deal a vote for austerity and against jobs in Massachusetts. Lynch says he couldn’t let the GOP destroy the nation’s credit rating.
  • Markey calls Lynch’s vote against the ACA a vote against healthcare, Lynch says the bill was flawed (though he’s not being totally honest about why he voted against it-the main “cost control” measure he now says was lacking was the “public option” he opposed at the time).

Each of these votes is defensible, each subject to criticism. Sorting it out requires an understanding of the complexity of the issue and what actually happened. My sense is that too many voters don’t have that understanding. In that case, they’ll make their decision based on who appears to speak with more authority. But appearances can be deceiving.



Discuss

11 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. Two reactions

    1) I came away from the debate more concerned than ever about the primary because Markey was not able to or prepared to defend himself against the one-liners, even when they were ridiculous such as “He’s with the fish, I’m with the fisherman.” Couldn’t he have pointed out that there won’t be any fisherman left if there aren’t any fish left? The red herring reference is too obscure. All his defenses fell flat against Lynch’s simplistic and trumped up charges. Markey just didn’t establish himself.

    2) When I’m canvassing from now on I won’t be able to sincerely agree with Lynch voters that he is a nice guy. Nope. He was dirty last night and not dirty against some guy he’s running against. He was dirty against someone he knows to be honorable, someone who’s record he knows, someone who has been a colleague for years. Nope, I can’t agree with Lynch voters now.

  2. It's not really a debate

    These debates are not really debates. The substance doesn’t matter. What matters is how the candidate appears to the voters.

    Markey looked to be unhappy and defensive. Lynch looked relaxed and confident.

    Lynch won this debate. Fortunately, for Markey, nobody was watching.

    • My thought exactly

      You mean you were watching, too?

    • In an ideal democracy

      those who are uninformed or undecided would watch in the hopes of learning more about the candidates. As things stand in reality, most of the audience is the hard-core political people whose votes are very unlikely to change based on anything they hear.

      As often as not it’s for the best, the debates being more likely to create a false impression than to give any useful information about how these people are likely to act as U.S. Senators. Last night, to me, was one of those times.

      I’m curious whether Markey was just surprised by being, in essence, called soft on terror and will be more prepared tonight.

      • Watched Last Debate

        Like a football game, the fans are not the only viewers. Future opponents also watch very carefully. So, last night, There is one other group of people who watched and recorded the debate–republican strategists.

        • Sure

          Which makes this line of attack by Lynch all the more irresponsible. I’m hoping Markey will pick up his game.

          In this special election I’m still not sure the general election debates will pull in many more voters than these primary debates.

  3. Obviously much more detailed than mine - good job.

    I came very close to covering it in live-blog format then got lazy. I think the west is tonight, but I’m not sure if Boston stations are carrying it.

  4. Wonder what the ratings were

    It seems fitting somehow that the race to succeed Ted Kennedy was one of the most engaging and energizing in years, while the race to succeed John Kerry is, well, somewhat lacking in charisma so far.

    I’m not sure how much people vote charisma and personality in a primary, though. I agree that this may be a bigger concern in the general.

    Overall, though, what little of the debates I’ve watched so far has not made me think, “Wow, I’m sure glad we have a primary race.”

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Wed 23 Jul 6:39 PM