The three candidates for this Tuesday's NY-23 special election -- Democrat Bill Owens, moderate Republican Dede Scozzafava, and Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman -- debated today with the local ABC affiliate in Syracuse, the only meeting of all three candidates in a special election that has caught the eyes of the national media.
One very important element of this debate was that the issues where Scozzafava takes her more liberal positions -- she is pro-choice, supports gay marriage, and supports the Employee Free Choice Act -- simply didn't come up at all. As a result, the focus on prominent economic issues like taxes, health care and job creation really did turn this into a debate between one Democrat and two Republicans, and as a result this meant Scozzafava was effectively tacking to the right.
One running theme of the debate, though, was the sheer enmity between the two Republicans, the regular GOP nominee Scozzafava, and the insurgent Conservative Hoffman. Scozzafava clearly viewed Hoffman as an agent of outside interests, the national right-wing groups that have backed him as opposed to her local support and concern for local issues, while Hoffman presented himself as the only real Republican -- and as noted above, the issues on which he's really differentiated from her didn't even come up.
National Or Local Race?
"Mr. Hoffman indicates the the most important thing, that this is a national race, and the parochial issues of the district are not important," said Scozzafava. "I disagree with that. The most important issues in this race are the issues that are most important to the 23rd Congressional district."
Hoffman defended his independence: "As the only conservative Ronald Reagan Republican in this race, the only people that are supporting me are the people that believe in the values and the ideals that represent conservatism."
On the subject of Afghanistan, Owens supported President Obama's deliberative process in deciding what policies to follow. "This is a very complicated question. Personally I believe as a former military officer myself, that one has to get the real information, if you will, in order to make that decision. And if I had that opportunity, or when I have that opportunity as a congressman, I will take it, I will listen to what is provided to me, and I will make a recommendation if called upon by the president to consult."
Scozzafava took a harder line against Obama, saying he should listen to his commanders. "Gen. McChrystal has made it very clear what he needs on the ground there in order to accomplish the strategic mission, and that's additional troops. Ignoring that request makes it unsafe, I think, for the men and women that are currently serving there." She said it's the president's prerogative to decide whether to go in a different direction, "but just to wait and waffle, I think it's taking too much time, which is causing a very unsafe situation."
Hoffman took a similar position as Scozzafava: "As an Army veteran, who was trained in combat engineering and infantry, I think if we're putting our troops in the way, in harm's way, then we need to give full support to them, and if we have a general requesting more troops, we have to step up to the plate, and we have to give them the support that the generals are asking for."
On health care, Scozzafava opposed the new health care bill, saying it would have too many unfunded mandates on local governments and businesses, and she opposed the public option: "We want to be doing the types of things that can encourage job creation: Lowering taxes, not increasing regulation. Now is not the time for further mandates."
Hoffman also opposed the public option, and had a line that would have been a great joke if there had been a studio audience, and if his delivery weren't so stiff and wooden: "And if there's really $120 billion, or $500 billion, whatever it is, waste and fraud in the Medicare system, then we have to go and find it. And if the government auditors can't find it, then maybe we should hire CPA's." Hoffman is himself an accountant -- but a lot of people might not know that, and the joke just didn't carry.
Owens was generally supportive of the health care bill, though there were things he would modify, such as raising the ceiling for exemptions on small businesses. He also endorsed the minimal public option in the current bill, after having previously been skeptical of the public option: "I think moving towards this legislation is very appropriate. I think the type or the form of the public option included in this bill is reasonable. It is not one that allows people to move to the government option if they already have health insurance overage. So it's not going to control a significant segment of the population."
On earmarks, both Owens and Scozzafava said they would work for every bit of money they could get for the district, and criticized Hoffman for swearing off the earmark process. Hoffman replied: "That's another scare tactic. Just because you don't take earmarks, you can still fight and get all the funding you need for important projects in this district." He said the real problem here is that earmarks are done in a secretive process of vote-trading, when instead funding should be fought for openly on the House floor. Scozzafava said that this would leave too much discretion to the White House: " I think that is definitely putting our area in peril."
On the stimulus, Owens supported the bill, but said that not enough dollars had been put towards infrastructure. Scozzafava faulted the state government for using too much money in the budget, which she voted against in the legislature for continuing expenses, when it should have gone to one-time infrastructure projects that would provide economic development. Hoffman said the stimulus bill should not have been passed in the form it was, and in Congress he would call for its reevaluation and redirection towards helping businesses.
Border Security: They're All Liberals!
An interesting example of how local issues can affect a candidate's position came up on the question of border security. The district is at the Canadian border, where people frequently travel from both sides for tourism and commerce. As a result, all three candidates were for better ease of access at the border. Owens said that border-crossing issues were a matter of educating people as to the documents they need and having better community outreach, citing his success in a community program in his county -- and the Republican and Conservative were even more permissive.
Scozzafava declared that "our neighbors to the north are our friends," and Hoffman said that "to slow down or discourage people from coming across the border just because they don't have a passport, I think has a big impact on our area." That's not the usual talk you'd expect from a candidate who's been endorsed by the Minuteman PAC.
Owens and Hoffman got in a scuffle over taxes. "My opponents, in particular Mr. Hoffman wants to go back to the failed Bush economic policies. What did that get us?" asked Owens. "It got us the worst economic crisis since the Depression. It got us the highest unemployment that we've seen in decades, an increase in the federal deficit of $4.9 trillion. I don't want to go backwards, I want to go forward,s and that's why I'm going to Congress."
Hoffman shot back, and even seemed to be implying that the problem with Bush was that he taxed too much: - "The failed Bush taxes. Well what we want to do is then increase taxes, Mr. Owens? Is that going to help business? Is that going to help increase jobs?" Well, he might not be a perfect match for the Minutemen, but he sure earned the Club For Growth's support.
Scozzafava: I'm The Local Candidate
Overall, Scozzafava pitched herself as the real candidate of the district and its local interests, in contrast to Hoffman's focus on conservative ideals: "This race is about the heart and soul of the 23rd Congressional district. It's not about what's important to Washington. It's about the types of policies that need to be put in place to allow our towns and villages to prosper."
So who will win this race: The moderate Democratic attorney who has worked on local issues in the private sector, the socially liberal and economically conservative Republican who has worked on the local issues in the state legislature, or the conservative activist who has caught fire on the strength of right-wing ideals? We'll find out on Tuesday.