Burns, Tester meet in first debate
By MICHAEL JAMISON of the Missoulian
Sabers rattled fiercely in their scabbards but were not drawn Sunday during a bloodless political debate between two old farmers - longtime Republican Sen. Conrad Burns and Democratic challenger Jon Tester.
The men debated for the first time at a conference of the Montana Broadcasters Association in Whitefish.
If Sunday's debate proved anything, it might be that Burns represents a status quo, with a focus on immediate fixes to immediate problems. Tester, on the other hand, emerged as a source of newly creative energy, focusing on long-term solutions consistent with a big-picture vision.
The race has been billed as "one of the most pivotal in the country," with the political balance of a sharply divided Senate at stake.
Much of the talk centered on national defense, territory Burns has hoped to stake as his own.
On U.S. strategy in Iraq:
"Win," said Burns. "There's no substitute for winning.
"If we cut and run - and we cannot cut and run - then we'll end up like a Vietnam," Burns said. But if troops stay the course, as they have in, say, South Korea, then the world can one day expect stability in the region.
Tester, though, believes "we obviously need an exit strategy."
The Democratic state senator said he supports the war on terror and supports military efforts in Afghanistan. But America entered the Iraqi field "under false pretenses," he said, and although there have been successes, "we need a plan for redeployment."
On U.S. foreign policy elsewhere in the world:
The mission in Iraq, Tester said, has come at a cost in other parts of the world. "It's spread our defenses too thin," he said. "It's spread our State Department too thin."
Attentions need to focus more equitably on Iran and Pakistan and North Korea, Tester said, as well as closer to home. "We're scraped too thin across the whole country."
But, Burns warned, "these terrorists operate in the shadows. They're faceless."
If American foreign policy is AWOL in some parts of the world - war-torn Africa, for instance - then it is because too many years of liberal policies failed the nation, Burns said.
"It was appeasement that led to 9/11," Burns said.
On the Patriot Act:
"We have not been hit in this country, folks, since September 11," Burns said. "Something is working."
American agents have cut off finances to terrorists, have infiltrated terror cells, have often defeated an enemy that "slips up on you."
But Tester wondered about how long that freedom can last, given the very tools used to secure it. While America must remain "diligent" with regard to fighting terrorists, he said, citizens must not give up essential freedoms to purchase presumed security.
The Senate's first step after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he said, was not to bolster border security or track down those here on expired visas or to investigate foreign operatives. Instead, Tester said, the Senate passed the Patriot Act, which "takes away our freedoms. We penalize our own people first."
On federal emergency efforts following Hurricane Katrina:
This proved a good example of the short-term need vs. the long-term view.
Burns admitted the response to Hurricane Katrina was flawed, admitted taxpayer dollars were wasted - yet still had to decide whether to authorize federal rescue and cleanup money.
"I voted to help them out," Burns said, "but I knew it was wrong at the time."
Tester, on the other hand, took a longer view, criticizing federal lawmakers for not dealing with what all knew were aging and dangerous dikes.
"That issue should have been handled years and years ago," he said.
On energy policy:
Both men stressed the need to ween America from its dependence on foreign oil, and both agreed a mix of more domestic fossil fuels and more alternative, renewable energies were key to the future.
But Burns placed more emphasis on digging fossil fuels from places such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, while Tester put more weight on alternatives. Specifically, the challenger hopes to see investment in seed oil crops for Montana farmers, providing both fuel and feed in a "win- win deal."
Burns said next year's farm bill, the first since 2002, will likely place more emphasis on energy than farm bills of the past. But first, he said, "Montana has to put up the flag and say, Welcome.' That means sell the coal,' Burns said. "The market place will take care of it."
On bringing home the bacon:
Burns did not waste a chance to show how Tester has voted to raise taxes. Tester, likewise, pointed out how Burns has chosen to cut taxes for his political allies, but only while spending money borrowed from China.
"I think that's very sad," Tester said. "I am of the belief that you take care of yourself, and you don't pass your debts onto your kids."
"You haven't helped," Tester told Burns. "You continue to spend money like a drunken sailor."
But Burns said money spent on Montana has been put to good use. He's brought home the cash needed for this new and diversified economy, he said, money for high-tech farms, for telemedicine and broadband communications, among other things.
"That's progress, folks. That's a vision for the future," Burns said. "We had that vision, and it still works today."