It has been painful to watch most of the debates between Senate candidates this election season. Imagine a game show in which representatives from each party are forced to strap on roller skates for the first time and are then compelled to stuff as many talking points as possible into each answer as they wobble back and forth. But the debate Monday night between the two candidates running for Senate in Kentucky was better than most. Both were firmly seated, and engaged in a free-flowing exchange that was prodded along by a single moderator who asked smart follow-ups. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a model of the form.
The debate also provided a model of what makes our politics so discouraging: The candidates retreated to disingenuous evasions that were at once familiar—candidates evade questions all the time—and notable because they seemed so brazen. One was a policy elision from Sen. Mitch McConnell, and one was a personal smokescreen from Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.
They are equivalent only in that they are both diversions. Whether one is worse than the other depends on your view of politics. Some people weigh candor about a personal matter more heavily than candor about policy. Fibs about personal matters are usually easier to spot in real time and require less context. Plus, policy is complicated, and good people can disagree. On the other hand, there is no direct policy impact in a personal evasion, whereas a policy hoodwink affects, or could affect, a great number of people in a direct way that changes lives.
I will address them in the order in which they appeared.
Grimes: When she was asked whether she voted for President Obama, Grimes ducked the question, saying that it was a matter of principle that she shouldn’t have to disclose her vote. It’s possible that Grimes really feels bound to this position, though when most people think about the sanctity of the ballot, it’s usually the idea that no government or person can compel you to say how you voted. But as McConnell pointed out, how you voted is not a fact that dare not speak its name. (Update, Oct. 15, 2014: Which is why Grimes said she voted for Clinton in 2008). You are free to let people know. So Grimes appears to be creating a principle to hide a political liability, which is her past support for a very unpopular president. It’s one thing to shift and wiggle. It’s worse to pretend your gyrations are based on a sacred commandment, especially when they aren’t. It’s not only disingenuous, but it contributes to the overall view that principles are playthings, which diminishes their effectiveness when real policies are on the line.
Lots of commenters said it was a politically stupid thing for Grimes to do, too. That is less clear. It’s doubtful this political tap dance routine affects the thinking of a great number of Kentucky voters: Those who don’t like Grimes see this as proof of their previous views. Those who do like her (or don’t like McConnell) probably won’t let an awkward evasion get in the way of their established opinions.
More important, the evasion as it stands is mainly a fixation of Washington reporters and Twitter elites. If you’re McConnell, you can’t turn that into an ad that lots of voters could see. When the president recently said his policies were on the ballot, McConnell’s team put the footage into an ad almost instantaneously. If Grimes had admitted she voted for Obama, it would have provided her opponent with a fresh clip for his next advertisement. That moment would have been replayed again and again for the next three weeks.
But Grimes wasn’t forswearing all presidents: Grimes says she considers herself a Clinton Democrat rather than an Obama Democrat because Clinton’s policies represented “growing the middle class the right way. And that’s by making sure that we are building from the foundation up.” For those keeping score at home, that’s a complete condemnation of Obama’s economic policies by a Democrat.
McConnell: The Senate minority leader was asked about Kentucky Kynect, the state’s federal exchange set up as a part of the Affordable Care Act: “Has Obamacare and Kynect been a boon or bane for the majority of Kentuckians?”
McConnell didn’t answer the question because he disagreed with its premise. He said Kynect was just a website and that it would be “fine” if it continued, but that he still believes that Obamacare should be pulled out “root and branch.” This too is a disingenuous answer. McConnell is trying to retain those voters who disapprove of Obamacare while not doing anything to offend those who like the popular program that has insured 500,000 people across the state. He doesn’t want to inspire new voters to turn out against him by making it seem like their new health care plans are under threat.
How can he do this? By being intentionally vague and defining the state program in a very limited way. When McConnell says it’s fine for Kynect to continue, it might sound to the casual viewer that he’s OK with the current system. But what he means is that the actual website can continue—literally the servers and the URL—and everything else can be replaced by some other system. He does not go into detail about what that new system would be in practical terms.
But we’ve all learned that health care websites and policies are closely intermingled. In fact, McConnell helped teach us that. He was an articulate critic of the president during the collapse of healthcare.gov. “The president likes to say that Obamacare is about more than just a website,” McConnell said during the period of healthcare.gov's initial collapse. “He’s absolutely right. And that’s why fixing a website won’t solve the larger problem here.” Websites and policies are tied together.
The policies that McConnell supports would make Kynect impossible in its current form because if you did away with Obamacare, as he proposes, the system would collapse into a death spiral. The mandates and subsides that allow the exchange to function would be gone. Striking down Obamacare would also remove the Medicaid subsidy that has covered people through Kynect.
At several other instances during the debate, McConnell went into some detail about the havoc that is wrought on Kentucky by federal actions both real and imagined. In this case, however, he doesn’t admit that Kynect in its current form would disappear. McConnell can make a case that the coming GOP majority will have a health care plan in 2015 that will replace Obamacare and be even better, but that’s quite a different argument—and full of politically unhelpful uncertainty—than the position he took. McConnell left the impression with viewers—and those who have taken advantage of the exchange—that the thing they liked could continue even if Obamacare died.
These would be great issues to discuss in a future debate, but unfortunately this is the only time Grimes and McConnell plan to square off. Of course, voters can stop them on the street and ask for clarifications. They’ve got three weeks until Election Day.