It’s 11 months until Election Day — but in the open Senate race in the swing state of Virginia, the gloves are already coming off, with presumptive Democratic nominee Tim Kaine and presumptive Republican nominee George Allen facing off Wednesday in a very heated debate, hosted by the Richmond Times Dispatch and other state media outlets.
During the debate, Kaine (a former governor and DNC chairman) pitched himself as a moderate political leader, mentioning frequently that he cut state spending by $5 billion during his time as governor, while simultaneously making investments in infrastructure and human development. By contrast, Allen (also a former governor, but more notably former senator who narrowly lost re-election in 2006) was often quick with an Agnew-esque attack on elites in Washington.
“We are blessed to be Number 1 in the world when it comes to energy resources — Russia’s Number 2,” Allen said on one early question about energy development in the state. “But the sanctimonious social engineers up in Washington, they look at our energy resources as a curse.”
He further added: “Now the folks who are hurt by this are not the folks who may be at a U.N. climate change conference, flying off to Cancun in a private jet. The folks who are hurt worst by these energy policies that cause us to pay higher prices for electricity, for gas and for food, are lower and middle-income families who are struggling to make ends meet.
Kaine generally pitched himself as in favor of more energy production, including an “all of the above” approach for alternative energy sources, and criticizing Allen for having opposed incentives for cleaner energies when he was in the Senate.
Much later in the debate, Kaine gave a reply to Allen’s many invocations of the federal government supposedly stopping energy production: “Do you know we are producing significantly more oil in this countryÂ now than when George was a senator? We are producing significantly more natural gas in this country now than when George was a senator; We are exporting more refined oil in this country now than when George was a senator. The notion that we have to unleash everything – hey, it’s happening right now, and that’s great.”
During a discussion on the tax code, Allen proposed a “freedom to choose” flat tax, in which people could choose either a flat tax — though Allen stopped short of naming an exact rate, or which deductions might still exist — or the present tax code, if they though they could get a better deal by itemizing various deductions. (This is similar to Rick Perry’s proposal.) Allen predicted that over time, most people would migrate to the flat tax.
For his part, Kaine pointed out that Allen was unable to come up with a number. But he dug deeper, saying that the Bush tax cuts should expire for the highest income brackets.
“These tax cuts were put in place I believe in 2003 – George was the deciding vote for them to be put in place,” said Kaine. “They were put in place temporarily. And the reason they were made temporary, is because if you made them permanent, they were gonna absolutely bust the deficit. And that’s exactly what has happened — along with voting for expansions of entitlement programs, voting for wars without figuring out how to fund them, and voting for these big tax increases (sic), the deficit has ballooned because of policies that George Allen pursued when he was a U.S. Senator.
“The right strategy on the Bush tax cuts, I believe is to do what congress said they were gonna, and let them expire at the top end, over $500k. and the reason you do that is because we should also be making a lot of cuts in the budget, and those cuts are gonna fall hardest on middle and lower income people. it’s balance. it’s balance. you cut tax rates, eliminate exclusions, let some of the tax cuts expire. that’s balance.”
With that said, Kaine did part with national Democrats on a key tactical matter in the current debate.
“You’ve got Democrats in the senate right now who are doing something I don’t like. which is saying we want to fund something with a millionaire’s tax. I think that is used because millionaires don’t poll well – that is a bad way to do tax policy. All we’ve got to do is deal with the Bush tax cuts. It’s $4 trillion of potential deficit reduction, depending on how we deal with that. And again, George and his colleagues promised that these were gonna be temporary tax cuts. If you let them expire at the top end, you get hundreds of billions of dollars that you can use to then combine with spending cuts to make things happen. And that’s the approach we need.”
A very contentious point in the debate came when Kaine was asked by the moderators about comments made in the press by members of his campaign, that Allen’s “macaca” moment from 2006 –Â when he called a Webb campaign tracker, who was from an Indian-American background, by an obscure racial slur, and set in motion his own narrow defeat — would be fair game for the election.
Kaine acknowledged that everyone has made mistakes — but that both he and Allen would be held accountable for their actions. “So in terms of the way we get judged for mistakes we make, I think we have a right to ask for a little bit of patience because we’re mortals. But I have followed what George said, and especially maybe what he said as he’s apologized for it.
“What he said in his book — and he apologized to the young man, and I give him credit for that, and he said it was wrong, and I give him credit for that. But as I read the apology, of course if I knew that he words were offensive I wouldn’t have said them. When he singled out a young man in this crowd and looking at him and said, ‘Welcome to America, welcome to the real Virginia,’ there was no mistake about what those words meant, there was no mistake. The implication that this young student was somehow less of a Virginian, or less of an American, than George or you and me. And I don’t know why he would say that. But for whatever reason he said it, it’s part of the divisive politics that we’ve got to put behind in this country.
“And it wasn’t a unique incident,” Kaine added, tying it to past examples of Allen’s rhetoric, such as when in the 1990s he told the state GOP that their job was to go to the Democrats and “knock their soft teeth down their whiny throats,” or calling legislators “dinosaurs” and “monarchical elitists” — or earlier in the debate, when he called federal employees “sanctimonious social engineers.”
“And I don’t know that there’s anybody in this room who thinks that the way to fix the dysfunction in Congress is to put more people in who want to do name calling, who want to divide people against one another. I’m thrilled that in this new Virginia, we’re all real Virginians. That talented society is what has rocketed us forward, and we may have a different view about that.”
A seemingly flustered Allen was given a chance to respond.
“My view of that was that it was a mistake. I never should have singled out that young man. He was simply doing his job. And I apologized for it. It was a mistake, and it diverted our campaign away from the issues that families care about. In this campaign we’re gonna be focused about issues that I hear from families, from small business owners throughout Virginia. And they are concerned about the future of our country. I do want to unite people, all people, and I’m one who comes form a football family, where you grow up where you have a level playing field, and regardless of one’s race, their ethnicity, their religion, everyone ought to have that equal opportunity to compete and succeed.
“And yeah, I am competitive, and I do care about the people of Virginia,” Allen said –Â making a segue to a further attack on national energy policy. “When I see people in Washington hurting families, hurting a woman, Mrs. Wright who runs a restaurant right near Winchester, and she said when these gas prices shoot up, sales drop, and we end up with empty chairs. And you see folks in Washington saying, ‘Oh gosh, we don’t have to worry about high gasoline prices’ — you see what happens to her.”
Later on, Allen criticized Kaine for accepting the role of chairman of the Democratic National Committee, saying he should have spent his final year as governor on state priorities, “not the national partisan role of advocating for the likes of, not only President Obama’s policies, but those of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid.”
“The likes of President Obama?” Kaine responded.
“Well, the policies and agenda of President Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid,” said Allen. “Were you or were you not advocating for their agenda? And their agenda surely wasn’t consistent with what’s in the best interests of the people of Virginia.”
“Wiping out al-Qaeda?” Kaine responded “Stopping the Iraq War? Saving the auto industry? Is that not being consistent with Virginia’s interests? I just see it a different way than you do, George.”
Later in the debate, Allen had a fumble on some basic science. The candidates were asked about conservative proposals to declare that life begins at conception. Kaine opposed this, explaining that it would not only outlaw abortion, but would outlaw contraception such as the birth control pill and intra-uterine devices.
Allen said that defining life as beginning at conception would not outlaw contraception, as “contraception” means stopping conception — that is, preventing fertilization from taking place.
Later on, there was this awkward exchange with a moderator:
Moderator: Could you tell us, how do you think birth control pills and intra-uterine devices work?
Allen: I’m not – I don’t profess to be a doctor. i’m just using logic of — maybe a little bit of Latin, that contraception means it stops conception – and so you do not have a fertilized egg.
Moderator: Don’t they work by preventing implantation of a fertilized egg?
Allen: Well if the egg is not fertilized, there is not conception.
When Kaine’s turn came up to speak, he explained that the common birth control pill works by a dual mechanism — both preventing fertilization, and preventing successful implantation when fertilization does occur. Also, he added, intra-uterine devices work singly by preventing implantation.