No matter who Kentuckians elect to the Senate this fall, they’re going to get an advocate for extending all the Bush tax cuts — and not just those for the middle class. In their first (and likely only) nationally-televised debate of the race, Republican nominee Rand Paul and Democratic nominee Jack Conway disagreed on just about everything — except for extending billions of dollars in tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans at a time when government is struggling to shrink the deficit.
“I think that raising taxes — we shouldn’t be doing it in a time of recession,” Conway said. “Listen, in 2002, when I was running for the United States Congress, I was for the Bush tax cuts then. I was one of the few Democrats that was for them and I think now we just ought to extend them.”
Paul called Conway’s position a flip-flop, but agreed that extending all the cuts was the right thing to do, and promised to offset the additional deficit numbers the tax cuts will create.
“I will immediately introduce bills to reduce spending,” Paul said. “I will introduce legislation that will balance the budget.”
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Pressed to offer specifics on how such offsets might work, Paul said that “for the younger generation, there will have to be changes in eligibility” when it comes to entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security.
“There may have to be for younger people, yes,” Paul said when asked if he would raise the retirement age. “I mean, longevity is out there.”
Paul and Conway both tried to walk a fine line between embracing and distancing themselves from their party’s leadership, too. Paul, the Republican nominee, essentially made a direct promise to support Mitch McConnell as the head of the GOP caucus if he’s elected. Conway, meanwhile, took pains to distance himself from President Obama even as he wrapped himself in key components of the president’s legislative accomplishments.
Paul said he would vote for whomever the Republican Senate caucus supported for leader should be be elected, and said he assumed that person would be McConnell. That’s one of his strongest statements in support of Kentucky’s senior Senator since he entered the race and defeated McConnell’s hand-picked successor for retiring Sen. Jim Bunning (R). Conway, meanwhile, criticized Obama for parts his agenda while attempting to embrace other parts. Cap and trade legislation and “the bailouts” were all examples of what’s been going wrong in Washington, Conway said, while the health care law and parts of the stimulus are examples of what’s going right.
Overall, the debate — which was broadcast on Fox News Sunday and moderated by the show’s host, Chris Wallace — lacked the drama outsiders watching the Kentucky race may have expected. Both Conway and Paul stuck to their respective scripts, with Paul continuing to hammer government spending and advocating tax cuts while Conway picked at Paul’s unorthodox positions on federal regulations, drug enforcement and civil rights laws.
Wallace described the debate as “free-form,” which in theory meant the nominees could talk to each other and take each other on. But the only real scuffle came in a discussion of drug law enforcement, which has become a Democratic advantage in an otherwise tough fight for Conway. The Democrat has leveraged Paul’s view that drug enforcement should be left up to the states to make inroads in Kentucky’s rural east, which has been ravaged by the crystal meth trade. Paul tried to knock down Conway’s rhetoric on the topic by pointing to what Paul suggested was Conway’s failed record on drugs.
“Here’s the problem,” Paul said, gesturing to Conway. “Chief law enforcement officer of Kentucky, wants to talk about drugs all the time? Under his watch the meth labs have doubled in the state…he’s been out of state 20 days of the last month campaigning in California, raising cash. He needs to be in the state, talking about and trying to do something about the meth labs.”
Conway is the state’s Attorney General and has made law enforcement a main campaign plank. He said the increasing numbers of labs found in Kentucky come from so-called “shake and bake” labs that are much harder to detect than more robust drug-making operations and then pivoted to his main line of attack — that Paul is not in tune with the issues facing the state he’s running for Senate in.
“Rand Paul will do anything keep from talking about the drug issue because he doesn’t get the state,” Conway said. “He doesn’t get our farm economy. He doesn’t get that drugs are a real pressing issue.”
Later, Conway expanded on the theme in a question about allowing gay men and lesbians to serve openly in the military. Conway supports changing current law to allow the service.
“The reason I said something on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is I abhor discrimination,” he said. “And that’s why it was painful for a lot of Kentuckians to see Rand Paul go on national TV and question fundamental provisions of the Civil Rights Act. That’s why it was painful to hear him speaking out against the Americans With Disabilities Act.”
Wallace pointed to Conway’s signature on the policy platforms of MoveOn.org and DailyKos — which the host listed as support for card check, the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and “being ‘open’ to government-run health care” — before asking “fair to say that in Washington you would actually be to the left of President Obama?”
“Look, I’m a Democrat and a proud Democrat,” Conway said. “I’m certainly not going to be to the left of Barack Obama. I’m going to put Kentucky first.”
The TPM Poll Average shows Paul ahead 47.4-41.9.