If you’ve followed the U.S. Senate race, most of today’s City Club debate between longtime liberal Brown and upstart conservative Mandel was pretty familiar. Mandel cast Brown as a failed Washington insider; Brown called Mandel overly ambitious and untrustworthy. Brown defended the auto bailout, health care law and economic stimulus; Mandel bashed the stimulus, the bank bailout, and part of the auto bailout.
The best moments came when a panel of journalists asked well-crafted questions, trying to get the candidates to say something new. The candidates mostly dodged, but the dodges revealed a lot.
-To Mandel: Doesn’t a no-tax pledge compromise your independence? Mandel has claimed he’ll be a less partisan senator than Brown. Tom Beres of Channel 3 poked a hole in that claim by asking Mandel why he signed conservative activist Grover Norquist’s pledge not to raise any taxes.
“You said if you got to Washington, you would not allow yourself to be bullied by political bosses or lobbyists or let anybody dictate to you [how] to vote,” Beres said. “Aren’t you already sacrificing your independence?”
“I’m proud to stand up for lower taxes in our state [and] our country,” Mandel replied. He talked about his role reducing property taxes as a Lyndhurst city councilman and trying to abolish Ohio’s estate tax. Left unanswered was how Mandel could compromise with Democrats and reach a budget deal if he’ll never raise a tax.
-To Brown: What would you give up to solve the fiscal crisis? Henry Gomez of the Plain Dealer asked Brown how Congress can avoid the “fiscal cliff,” the deep spending cuts and expiring tax cuts that hit Jan. 1 and could plunge the country into a new recession.
“What should happen in the lame-duck session?” Gomez asked. “What would you give up?”
Brown quickly called for a “balanced approach” -- the Democrats’ catch phrase for a mix of spending cuts and higher taxes. Then he went back to 1993 to assert his budget-balancing bona fides, citing his vote for that year’s budget deal (which raised income taxes on the wealthy and cut them for the poor). Brown began to blame the deficit on the Iraq war when Gomez interrupted him.
“What should happen in these next few months to address this problem?” Gomez asked. A balanced approach following the same principles, Brown repeated.
After rejoicing that Gomez had challenged Brown, Mandel responded that he’d save money by closing some military bases in Europe. That might not be enough to solve the fiscal crisis, but it was a more specific answer than Brown’s.
-To Mandel: Did the auto bailout help Ohio? Until today, Mandel has been vague about how he would’ve voted on the auto bailout. Instead, he’s blasted Brown for one aspect of it, the fact that it caused some workers at the auto parts supplier Delphi to lose their pensions.
“Do you believe, on balance, that the auto bailout has a boon for the Ohio economy?” Tom Troy of the Toledo Blade asked Mandel.
“I would not have voted for that,” Mandel said. “I couldn’t have, because it stripped from middle class retirees their pensions.”
But Mandel didn’t answer Troy’s question: whether the auto bailout did more good than harm in Ohio. Brown pounced, noting that Republicans George Voinovich and Steve LaTourette also voted for it. “To be against the auto rescue just boggles my mind,” he said.
-To Brown: What free-trade deals would you vote for? Brown is one of Congress’ most reliable opponents of free-trade agreements. Gomez mentioned the senator’s opposition to free trade deals with Colombia, Peru and South Korea and asked what would ever lead him to support a trade deal.
“These trade agreements have clearly sold out the middle class,” Brown said. He argued that Obama’s enforcement of trade rules had led the opening of a steel mill in Youngstown. He said he’d written legislation about the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks “that will make a difference in putting trade agreements on the side of American workers and American manufacturers.”
What Brown didn’t say was that he’s almost never met a trade deal he liked. He’s only voted for one in two decades: a 2000 agreement with Jordan.
-To Mandel: How would you pay for the popular parts of the health care law? “As unpopular as Obamacare is among conservatives, some elements of the plan have popular support,” Troy noted. He asked Mandel how the government could maintain those goals, such as requiring insurance companies to accept people with preexisting conditions, without requiring people to buy coverage.
“We’d have to make cuts in other parts of the government,” Mandel said. “In order to pay for covering folks with pre-existing conditions, young adults on their parents’ insurance, if there’s leaders in Washington who want to do that without Obamacare on the books, we’ve got to make significant cuts.”
It’s a confusing answer. How would he help people with pre-existing conditions? Does he mean he’d have the government pay insurance companies to insure them? Or pay to set up a high-risk insurance pool? He didn’t say, and his website’s health care page doesn’t either.
People in the audience of 1,300 definitely noticed most of the dodges. The Renaissance Cleveland Hotel ballroom buzzed as Mandel meandered through his answer on the auto bailout and as Brown tried to steer his answer away from the fiscal cliff. Partisans on both sides cheered and laughed and razzed the candidates, loudly interrupting the debate several times but also calling out Brown and Mandel when they wouldn’t give a straight answer.