I’ll go way out on a limb and assume that last night’s televised Toomey-Sestak debate was not a boffo hit in the ratings. The odds are, you gladly passed up the opportunity to watch the Pennsylvania Senate candidates swap their talking points during the dinner hour. But hey, no problem. I watched it for you.
Now that a third poll has found the race to be in a statistical dead heat – today’s Quinnipiac survey confirms that Sestak has closed the sizable deficit that plagued him for five months – it’s clear what the sprint to election day will be all about: This is a battle between the party bases. Quinnipiac says that Republicans favor Toomey over Sestak by 88 to 8 percent; Democrats favor Sestak over Toomey by 89 to 7 percent – and, lest we forget, Sestak has a potentially bigger pool to draw from. Democratic registration in Pennsylvania currently trumps Republican registration by 1.2 million (double the margin of 2006).
Is it likely that last night’s debate – or, more specifically, the sound bites that may surface from the debate – will sway many minds? Nah, I doubt it. At best, both guys probably stoked base enthusiasm without breaking the deadlock. Meanwhile, they provided some fabulous dinner-hour fun. Let’s share a few choice moments:
Oh, did I happen to mention that I was in the military? At one point, retired Admiral Sestak declared, “In the U.S. military, we don’t breed liberals.” Later, when Toomey tried to tag him as pro-gun control, Sestak replied, “I’ve lived my entire life in the U.S. military, with weapons.” And when asked to comment on the Middle East, Sestak replied, “I patrolled those (sea) lanes out there, in the military.” And when asked to comment on a terrorism issue, he replied, “I headed the Navy’s anti-terrorism unit.” And while touting his creds during closing comments, he said: “I joined up in the military in the Vietnam era, I led men into conflict.” And when the health care issue came up, he said that he enjoyed great health care while in the military.
Hey, if John McCain could invoke his POW past at every opportunity, why shouldn’t Sestak repeatedly invoke his military career? Maybe that’ll convince conservative Democratic voters that he doesn’t fit the Toomey-imposed “extreme liberal” label. And don’t think that Toomey wasn’t envious of those military creds; in the final minutes, he uttered a plaintive Me Too: “Well, my dad’s a veteran of the Korean war era, and my brother-in-law served in the Navy.”
La, la, la, la, la, I can’t HEAR you! When Toomey was asked to comment on whether Toomey endorser Sarah Palin is qualified to be president, he answered this way: “Well, George, uh, you know, I’m very grateful for the support that I have from people all across the political spectrum, Republicans, independents, Democrats, I welcome the endorsements that I have from high-profile figures and ordinary folks that I meet every day. Here’s what I think is important. We’re at an inflection point in our country…My concern, a lot of that concern, is driven by the three kids that Chris and I have – my 10-year-old daughter, my five-year-old son, and our little five-month-old baby boy. I’m concerned about their future. And, you know, whoever endorses me, in this campaign, I’m grateful for, I welcome all allies in this effort to get a government that’s out of control under control…”
Yetta, yetta. Whenever a politician says “Here’s what I think is important,” or whenever a politician brings up his kids as a rhetorical shield, you know that he is fleeing in terror from the posed question. And no wonder. If Toomey had touted Palin as qualified to be president, he risked losing ground with independents who view her as a train wreck. If Toomey had questioned her qualifications to be president, he risked de-enthusing the tea-party segment of his Republican base. So instead he filibustered, thereby demonstrating that he’d fit right in with the Senate Republicans.
And maybe Toomey has yen for lo mein, too. Sestak has a thing about China; he gives the word a verbal sinister twist, as if he was saying “Death Star.” In the opening moments, he said that Toomey as a congressman “voted that if a corporation shuts down its factory here in Pennsylvania, fires its employees, and then invests in a factory in China, and then cheap goods come in, often illegally subsidized by China, then no tax is given to the process of that large corporation.” Later, he reminded Toomey that at one point in the past, “You were working in China for a Chinese billionaire!” Later, he claimed that Toomey’s plan to partially privatize Social Security would mean “we’ll have to borrow from China.” Later, he said that, apart from al Qaeda, “the number one danger…is actually our economic security. China.”
Beware the yellow peril! But hey, I get what he’s doing. A big chunk of the Democratic base is organized labor; blue-collar Pennsylvania Democrats have long stewed about jobs going overseas, and about U.S. government efforts to engage in trade with China at our expense. The thing is, it’s a tad misleading to blame Toomey for this. Ten years ago, the Clinton administration (in which Sestak served) was totally gung-ho about free trade with China; it successfully lobbied Congress for a free-trade pact, and scoffed at labor warnings that such a pact would imperil American jobs and flood our shores with cheaply-made goods. Clinton (whose name Sestak proudly invoked last night) was on the side of the big corporations, as were many Democrats. Fortunately for Sestak, Toomey didn’t call him on this one. Pay no attention while I attempt to whitewash the past. Most Republican candidates this year are deep into global warming denial; last night, Toomey exhibited Bush era denial. He kept blaming Sestak and the Democrats for “corresponding deficits” and “unaffordable deficits.” Uh, hello? Figures from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office show that, during the previous decade when a Republican Congress and the Bush White House shared power, the various enacted GOP policies (most notably, a foolish war of choice and a Medicare drug plan, neither of which were paid for) wound up adding way more to the deficit than the sum total of programs enacted by the Democratic Congress, post-2006.
In fact, the CBO has concluded that the projected 10-year cost of the ’03 Medicare prescription drug program, by itself, will deepen the deficit more than the total combined costs of the health care law, the economic stimulus, and the financial system bailout. Granted, Toomey himself voted against that Medicare drug program. But somehow he plumb forgot to provide some perspective on the Sestak-Democratic sins by acknowledging the Bush Republican track record.
Ditto his hysteria on the issue of prosecuting top terrorists in civilian courts. Sestak said last night that he supports the concept; Toomey said that Sestak’s stance is further proof of liberal extremism, that civilian prosecutions would be “irresponsible…dangerous…a compromise to our security.” But somehow he forgot that, by his own standards, the Bush administration was clearly a hotbed of liberal extremism. As Bush’s Justice Department noted approvingly in a report, federal civilian prosecutors got 319 convictions in “terrorism or terrorist-related cases” – and that was 90 percent of the caseload.
Sestak actually undersold his rebuttal when he said, “George Bush tried 200 terrorists, 200 of them here, and (Toomey) never spoke up.” But maybe it doesn’t matter what Toomey didn’t do back then. Right now, Toomey’s goal is to stoke his base by any and all means; if he can scare it with the phony notion that trying terrorists in U.S. civilian courts is a unique Obama-Sestak concept, then all the better for his prospects.
Never mind, I’ll wash out my OWN mouth with soap. Sestak almost uttered a no-no on TV when he nearly referred to terrorists as “bastards.” He let the first syllable slip from his mouth before he stopped himself and found a synonym. (I watched him do it; the episode does not appear in the debate transcript.) Is the B-word even verboten anymore on non-cable TV? I doubt the FCC would have blinked. And hey, some rough passion about 9/11 might’ve further aided his efforts to appear illiberal. He said “bas-” at the same time that he was recounting how he was working at the Pentagon on 9/11. Did you know he was in the military?
And thank you, gentlemen. Seriously. Sparing us the new instant cliche of the ’10 election cycle, neither of them taunted the other to “man up.” Not even once!