U.S. Senate debate in New Jersey mirrors partisan divide in Washington

 Cory Booker (left) and Steve Lonegan debated Friday in Trenton. (Screen capture from 6abc stream)

Cory Booker (left) and Steve Lonegan debated Friday in Trenton. (Screen capture from 6abc stream)

It’s the kind of race Phyllis Schlafly envisioned in 1964 when she wrote “A Choice, Not An Echo” in support of Barry Goldwater’s successful effort to wrest the GOP away from the “Rockefeller Republicans” and unsuccessful effort to wrest the country away from liberal Democrats and the “Great Society” they wanted to build.

Schlafly, now 89 years old and still president of the Eagle Forum, was one of the first national Republican leaders to enthusiastically endorse Steve Lonegan’s campaign for the U.S. Senate, declaring that his victory in the October 16 special election would be “proof that straight talk, not watered-down messages, are what Republicans need to win back elections.”

Lonegan has not disappointed conservative backers like Schlafly by toning down his rhetoric in any way, even though he is running for the first time with the support of the state’s Republican Party.

Lonegan put his unwavering support for a ban on abortion, Second Amendment gun rights, repeal of the Affordable Care Act, opposition to gay marriage, a partial privatization of Social Security, elimination of the Common Core Educational Standards and the federal Department of Education itself, and a reduction in college loans as part of an overall program to cut federal spending and debt on full display in his first debate with Democratic opponent Cory Booker.

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Meanwhile, one podium over, Booker used the debate to underscore his opposite positions in support for the current “right to choose” abortion law, stricter gun control, the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of health insurance, legalization of gay marriage, continuation of Social Security, federal involvement in education policy, more aid to college students, and increased government spending on infrastructure and both K-12 and higher education.

While each used politically charged language to brand the other as an “extremist,” there is no question that on domestic policy issues and fundamental government philosophy, New Jersey voters have not had a clearer choice in recent political history, and quite possibly not since the 17th Amendment to the United States Constitution provided for the direct election of U.S. senators 100 years ago.

“Lonegan’s comments on healthcare – ‘If you have cancer, it’s your problem. If I’m blind, it’s my problem’ — are so far outside the public thinking of almost anyone in a prominent position in politics in New Jersey over the last 80 years that it’s hard to imagine a statewide race with clearer differences between the candidates,” said John Weingart, associate director of Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics.

Lonegan is certainly the most conservative candidate nominated by the New Jersey GOP – one of the last bastions of the Rockefeller Republicans that Schlafly despised — since 25-year-old political unknown Jeff Bell upset liberal Republican Sen. Clifford Case in the 1978 primary and went on to lose to Bill Bradley, a former New York Knicks star and vaunted Rhodes Scholar at Princeton University whose political celebrity at a young age paralleled Booker’s fame.

Unlike Bell, whose policy positions anticipated the rise of Ronald Reagan, for whom Bell later worked, Lonegan today is clearly in the mainstream of Republican primary voters national and the GOP House majority they elected with a mandate to cut government spending and debt, repeal Obamacare, ban abortion, and block gay marriage.

While the Bradley-Bell debates had the feel of polite academic forums, Friday’s politically charged Booker-Lonegan debate took place with Democrats and Republicans locked in a stalemate over government spending and Obamacare that forced a partial federal government shutdown now entering its seventh day, with the government facing default if agreement on a new debt ceiling cannot be reached by October 17, the day after New Jersey’s U.S. Senate special election.

“Voters know this time that policy differences matter,” Weingart noted.

And unlike Bradley who was running for office for the first time, Booker already has a well-established political agenda, governmental record, and philosophy of bipartisanship that neither Lonegan nor his Democratic opponents would let him run away from, even if he wanted to.

“Booker is a Bill Clinton ‘third-way’ Democrat,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “One area where he stands with a lot of urban Democrats is in favor of school choice and school vouchers, which puts him in opposition to the teacher unions that are a traditional Democratic constituency. But President Obama has been out there on charter schools and tenure reform issues that Booker has taken on, so his school reform positions have legitimacy.

“On all of the important social issues and on important pocketbook issues like the minimum wage, he is clearly in the liberal Democratic mainstream, and that puts him in clear opposition to what Lonegan and the national Republican Party represent,” Murray concluded. “And while people can question just what a freshman senator can do to end the gridlock in Washington, it’s clear that Booker will not be an obstructionist.”

While Booker, like Republican Gov. Chris Christie, sees the federal government shutdown as a failure — a failure that Booker blames on the “Tea Party fringe hijacking our government,” Lonegan says the nation is “seeing Republicans hold the line on the Obamacare assault on our healthcare freedom.”

Lonegan made it clear that he would not vote to raise the federal debt ceiling without deep spending cuts. “Under Barack Obama, we’ve watched the national debt grow from $8 billion to over $16 billion,” Lonegan asserted. “We need to put an end to the massive borrowing and deficit spending. We need to cut the size of government, cut hard and cut deep.”

Lonegan blasted Booker for recommending “a $1.4 billion tax hike” with his plan to cut corporate tax loopholes by lowering capital depreciation rates, barring companies from deducting offshore profits not sent back to the United States, and cutting out oil and gas tax breaks.

Booker says his corporate tax changes would equalize corporate taxes and enable the corporate tax rate to be cut from 35 percent to 28 percent.

Unlike Lonegan, however, Booker wants to increase government spending to build infrastructure, strengthen public K-12 education, and provide more financial assistance so that college students do not graduate with college loans averaging $26,000.

Lonegan made it clear that “I don’t support using federal funds for education, period.” He noted that he worked his way through college because his father had died, and asserted “there’s a big difference between working your way through school and being enticed by the government to borrow money you shouldn’t borrow to invest in a degree that may never pay itself back.”

“Mayor Booker, did you ever have a job in college?” Lonegan baited Booker. “Did you ever even work?”

Lonegan said he would work to protect Social Security and Medicare “for my 80-year-old mother,” but “we do need to make changes. I would be a big advocate to allow young people coming in to join the current system,” he said, “or choose to be in their own personal Social Security account,” he said. “This has been done successfully in other places and would be a way of weaning the country off Social Security over the next 60 years before it’s too late.”

Booker questioned how Lonegan could portray himself as a defender of Social Security when he previously called it a “Ponzi scheme,” and as a defender of Medicare when “he said he would not have voted for Medicaid and Medicare because he doesn’t believe the government should be in the business of helping people — elderly, sick, disabled, people with preexisting conditions — the government should not be involved in their healthcare.”

He added that Lonegan’s plan to allow young people to opt out of Social Security would jeopardize the fiscal stability of the system. “If you take current contributors out of the system and let them put their Social Security plans on Wall Street,” Booker said, “nobody will be paying into the system, and that will jeopardize the system a lot quicker than 2033,” when analysts project that Social Security would have to cut benefits by 25 percent to stay afloat.

“What you’ve got to do to fix it is have the wealthy in this country pay a little more,” he said, adding that the nation needs to overhaul its tax system, as it did when Reagan and Bradley teamed up on a bipartisan tax reform measure in 1986.

Lonegan pounced on Booker’s comments as proof that “my opponent supports that very far left liberal view of government that government should collect as much taxes as possible and redistribute it,” and blamed Obama’s fiscal policies for the fall in middle-class family income during the so-called jobless recovery that has followed the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009.

Booker, however, noted that Lonegan does not support legislation to increase the minimum wage, which Booker and most Democrats do.

Booker and Lonegan differed as stridently on a wide range of social issues, from gay marriage to abortion to gun control.


NJ Spotlight, an independent online news service on issues critical to New Jersey, makes its in-depth reporting available to NewsWorks.

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