The candidates in the Massachusetts special election met tonight for their final debate, with tough attacks flying between Democrat Martha Coakley, Republican Scott Brown, and independent libertarian Joe Kennedy. And again, there was a frequent reminder that the fate of the health care bill in Washington could be riding on this election.
It wasn’t hard to keep this in mind. David Gergen, the moderator for this event, openly introduced the debate by telling the audience that this election may very well determine the result of theÂ health care debate. He then began the debate by asking the candidates whether this election should be seen as a referendum on the health care bill — perhaps setting up a ready-made spin of the election result for himself and other commentators.
Brown was first. “The health care bill that’s being proposed in Washington is broken,” Brown said. “The back-room deals, Nebraska, Louisiana, we all know about it. We need to start over.” He addedÂ a short while later: “I would be proud to be the 41st vote, and go back to the drawing board.”Coakley responded. “I would be proud to be the 60th vote,” she said, and discussed the importance of passing a health care bill. “As Sen. Kennedy said, it should be a right, not a privilege. I believe that doing it in Washington, and doing it incrementally is apparently how we will do it, we can lay the groundwork.”
Brown shot back that Massachusetts shouldn’t vote for national health care reform, because they already have an insurance reform program. “We have insurance here in Massachusetts. We have some of the best doctors, nurses and hospitals in the country, that’s why people come here,” he said. “Not only is this bill going to be bad for the state, my job is to be the senator from Massachusetts. I’m not going to be subsidizing for the next three, five years, pick a number, subsidizing what other states have failed to do.”
Gergen said that from the experience of 1993 and 1994, if this health care bill fails, it could be another 15 years before the issue is taken up again. Would the candidates be willing to put it off the table for another 15 years, as the occupant of Ted Kennedy’s seat?
“Well, with all due respect it’s not the Kennedy seat, it’s not the Democrats’ seat, it’s the people’s seat,” Brown responded. He further explained: “I’d like to send them back to the drawing board, because I believe people should have insurance, not this particular bill because it’s not good for the country.”
Brown even promised that he’ll work to make sure that something else is passed: “And it’s not gonna take 15 years, not on my watch.”
Coakley later shot back: “He wants to go back to the drawing. Indeed, he wants to go back to those Bush-Cheney policies that support the very wealthy.”
Brown responded during his next turn: “Regarding your comments consistently about Bush-Cheney this, Bush-Cheney that, you can run against Bush-Cheney, but I’m Scott Brown, I live in Wrentham, I drive a truck, and it’s over 200,000 miles right now, and you’re not running against them, you’re running against me.”
On the subject of Afghanistan, Brown attacked Coakley for being in favor of trying terror suspects in civilian criminal courts. “And I’ve got to be honest with you folks,” said Brown, “I’m scared at what I’ve hard with your policies of giving terrorists constitutional rights and clamming them up.” He also said he supports President Obama’s troop surge in Afghanistan, which Coakley does not.
Gergen asked Coakley how it’s possible to succeed in Afghanistan without the surge — and Coakley gave a very risky answer for a politician. “I’m not sure there is a way to succeed,” said Coakley. She explained that her concern was with the definition of the very mission there: “If we went in because we decided the Taliban was giving harbor to terrorists, we supported that, I supported that. They’re gone.”
Brown called her thinking “naÃ¯ve.” She shot back: “I think it’s naÃ¯ve to say we have troops that we can send anywhere and they’re the best way to go after terrorists who train in the night, and get on planes with bombs in their shoes.” Instead, she said, the better path in some situations is to use intelligence and targeted missions by the CIA and other agencies to go after terrorists as individuals, whether it’s in Afghanistan or Yemen or elsewhere.
A wild card in the debate was Joe Kennedy (who is not related to the Kennedy family). In a humorous moment, Kennedy said that when he called his father up and told him that he was running for Senate, his father’s reply was “Oh no, I’m very proud of you.”
Kennedy said that neither candidate was willing to cut spending on both entitlements and wars, as he calls for. “Spending is something that’s difficult to cut,” he said. “It’s difficult to look at people in the audience and say, ‘You know what, we have to cut entitlement spending,’ he said, also adding: “The reason nobody wants to talk about cutting entitlement spending is it costs them votes. But you know what, when you go out and say I’m going to cut your taxes and raise entitlement spending, you’re just lying to get votes.”
At one point, Gergen asked Kennedy about if he doesn’t win, which candidate would he prefer? Kennedy laughed at the obvious trap, saying that the point of being a third party candidate was to be true to the message — and he then proceeded to answer the question, both praising and lambasting Scott Brown: “I honestly think that Scott at least talks about cutting taxes, which is part of the way there. My issue with Scott is, last year he had the opportunity when we had the referendum to cut the income tax. He’s been calling for an across the board tax cut. He publicly came out against it, and it went down … a year and half later now that he’s running, he’s for the very same thing…How do voters trust him? I don’t know.”
The election will be held next Tuesday, with a lot of money and attacks happening along the way. Polls have shown either a wide Coakley lead or a small Brown edge, depending on the turnout model. If turnout is low, Brown could pull off the win in this traditionally Democratic state. We’ll see what happens next week.