The Billings Outpost

No clear winner in Monday’s Zinke-Lewis debate

OPINION

By DAVID CRISP - The Billings Outpost

If the purpose of a political debate is to change voters’ minds, then Monday’s U.S. House debate at Montana State University Billings was a clear draw.

It’s hard to imagine that any minds changed after a debate in which Republican Ryan Zinke and Democrat John Lewis seemed to agree at least at often as they disagreed.

Mr. Lewis gave a more polished performance that he did in an earlier debate in Butte, while Mr. Zinke appeared to be in a prevent defense, perhaps because he agreed only a few days before the debate to take part and perhaps because he is widely believed to be sitting on a lead in the race.

Asked about shifts in his positions while he was in the state Senate, Mr. Zinke replied, “I’m an American first, then a Montanan, then a Republican.” None of those assertions was in dispute; neither did they offer much insight into how he would govern in Washington.

But Mr. Zinke did seem to do a better job of pinning unpopular Democratic policies on Mr. Lewis than Mr. Lewis did of pinning Republican weaknesses on Mr. Zinke.

Supporters of each candidate clapped and yelled long and often, despite attempts by Billings Gazette Editor Darrell Ehrlick to quiet the crowd.

Mr. Lewis drew his biggest round of applause when he spoke in support of abortion rights, while Mr. Zinke drew scarcely a titter when he made a pro-life statement that acknowledged the likelihood that abortion will remain legal at the federal level.

But those for whom abortion is a make-or-break issue had no doubt already picked their candidate for the November election. Other voters may have had a hard time choosing between the two.

Both spoke in favor of the Keystone pipeline. Both favored an all-of-the-above energy policy. Both favored action against ISIS forces in the Mideast, but neither was enthusiastic about committing ground troops. But Mr. Zinke said there would be no other way to stop terrorist activities there.

Mr. Lewis denied that he was an architect of the Affordable Care Act and rendered a defense of it that was less than full-throated. Mr. Zinke said the act was “sinking” but offered only piecemeal alternatives such as low-cost healthcare clinics and tort reform.

Neither candidate called for much change in gun laws. Mr. Lewis said the country needs to focus more on mental health problems that lead to frequent gun massacres. Mr. Zinke opposed any changes in federal gun laws.

Mr. Lewis attacked Mr. Zinke’s support of Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plan, noting that the Republican-passed budget would cut Pell grants for college students and convert Medicare to a voucher system backed by private insurance. Mr. Zinke said that he supported the Ryan budget as a framework for getting to a balanced budget, but said he did not support Medicare changes.

Mr. Zinke also alleged that the Affordable Care Act took $716 billion from Medicare, but Mr. Lewis noted that the same cuts were included in Rep. Ryan’s budget.

Asked what specific budget cuts they would make in Montana, neither candidate had much to offer. Mr. Lewis said he would cut wasteful spending, and Mr. Zinke said he would cut $3.4 billion in federal funds for Common Core, a national attempt to establish education standards.

But as Mr. Zinke said of cuts that Mr. Lewis has proposed in congressional spending, that amounts to no more than a rounding error in budgets with half-trillion dollar deficits.

Mr. Lewis drew scattered groans from the crowd when he said that Common Core appeared to be working in Montana.

Mr. Zinke raised concerns about the budget deficits but offered little to cut them other than reducing federal regulations, which he said would invigorate the economy and increase tax revenues. Mr. Lewis kept his focus on cutting waste.

Post-debate spin doctors did their duty. They accused Mr. Zinke of “flip-flopping” on issues and Mr. Lewis of being “beholden to D.C.”

The candidates agreed that Congress, which has poll numbers at all-time lows, isn’t doing its job. Bills that pass the Republican-controlled House fail to get a hearing in the Senate, while bills passed in the Democratic-controlled Senate languish in the House.

If either candidate is the man to fix that problem, it was not evident at Monday’s debate.

Last Updated on Thursday, 02 October 2014 16:22

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