Everyone likes to crow about "knockout blows" in debates, but I think they're less important than the overall substance and tone of a particular candidates answers. And that's what I was looking at during the first debate between Russ Feingold (D-Incumbent) and Ron Johnson (R-Challenger) Friday evening.
First of all, I couldn't help but chuckle when the moderator made some comment about hosting the debate as a way to get more people engaged and involved with politics. Way to schedule it for a Friday night, then, when the majority of the citizenry is certainly camped out on their couches watching TV?
(The same could be said of last night's debate during Monday night football which, as of this writing, I obviously have not yet seen.)
Anyway, it was a so-so affair as debates go. It's no secret that I think Feingold outclasses and outguns Johnson in the same way a tank does a derringer, but I did my best to objectively assess their respective performances in this instance. What I saw was this:
Johnson is not a terribly thrilling public speaker. Technically this is a shallow critique to make, but when you're hoping to become an elected representative especially on the national scale being able to accurately and clearly lay out your arguments and beliefs, to be persuasive, is a key element. It's then a huge turn-off to constituents and fellow politicians when you have such a difficult time speaking succinctly. It was one of my biggest beefs with John Kerry when he ran for president, quite frankly, and I think it played a significant role in hurting his chances (along with being a relatively uninspiring candidate).
I also didn't hear anything new from ol' RoJo - he reaffirmed his misguided belief that the sun is more to blame for major climate change than human activity, hammered at the tired "tax less, spend less, smaller government" line that's been regurgitated by the GOP faithful since time immemorial, and stated that he wants a constitutional amendment to establish some kind of nebulous government spending cap.
I shouldn't find it so strange that Johnson also reiterated how little political experience he has, given the current anti-incumbent fever the media claims is currently gripping the nation. I have to hope that most people can tell the difference between a fresh face with substance to back it and a fresh face that lacks a body entirely, though.
And yet Johnson trumpets the fact that he has zero experience in a political setting while claiming that having run a business (that was practically handed to him and thrived on government subsidies) will make him the bees knees. I like how he's also continuing to harp on his accusation that Feingold is a "career politician." Johnson likes to lie and say that "Senator Feingold doesn't know how to create jobs. Why would he? He's worked in politics all his life." Fact's are that 1) Feingold was an attorney for some years before going into politics, therefore has not "worked in politics all his life," and 2) has been reelected so many times because he's really good at his job, which would be well representing the people of Wisconsin.
Remind me again, how is that a bad thing?
RoJo also claimed that it was "objective fact" that the "stimulus didn't work." This assessment of objectivity relies very heavily on whose point of view we're talking about, though.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, as well as three prominent, private economic research firms, agreed that the stimulus actually did have a positive effect on the economy as a whole. The average impact on employment they all came up with is about 2.5 million jobs currently held by people who would otherwise be unemployed without the bill.
David Leonhardt, writing at the New York Times' Economix blog, notes:
Home buying jumped during the very period when a tax credit for home buying was in effect. The same happened with corporate investment. State spending stabilized in the middle of last year - just as states were hearing about their stimulus awards - even though state revenues were continuing to fall at the time. Consumer spending has risen faster than income growth would suggest, but about as fast as you'd expect given the combination of income growth and stimulus tax cuts.
More broadly, job cuts began shrinking just as the stimulus was going into effect last year, and the stock market began rising shortly after it passed. The stimulus was by no means the only reason, but it appears to have been a significant one.
Which is to say that RoJo is full of it on this one, too.
(Another fun fact: Johnson used the name of Len Herricks, President of the Oshkosh Education Association, as an example of someone he'd worked across ideological lines with to get things done. Only, that's not exactly how Herricks remembers it.)
Over in the blue corner, Feingold was much stronger on his record of achievement in the Senate as well as what he intends to do if given another term by voters. He defended the health care bill (rightly, I would say), noted that he was the only no vote on the Patriot Act, has voted for appointing political opposites to the Supreme Court he thought were otherwise qualified, and stated that he believes we have to do something to combat man-made global warming.
I was not impressed, however, by his sometimes incredulous tone. I worry that it comes off as patronizing to those people still on the fence about who they'll vote for when one candidate comes off as so cocky about his position that he's just flabbergasted that someone might vote for this other clown.
Look, I'm as incredulous as anyone that RoJo actually seems to have a fighting chance in this race, but it won't help matters if the incumbent I support sounds flippant about the whole thing.
I'm also not a fan of some of the ads Feingold has been running, especially compared to some of the great ones of his past campaigns. Stick to the issues what have you done, what will you do? Take a straight-forward, no-nonsense, get things done approach. Don't sink to the petty, personal attacks that are so unfortunately en vogue right now no matter what your market research team might tell you.
You're better than that, Russ.
(Once I've had the chance to watch Monday night's debate, expect a more thorough analysis of the race as a whole possibly by Thursday and, as always, I welcome your thoughts and insights as well!)