WASHINGTON — More than anything else, one thing came up again and again and again in Wednesday’s debate between Sen. Al Franken and his Republican challenger Mike McFadden: a number. Ninety-seven.
As in 97 percent, the amount of time studies show Franken has voted with President Obama during his tenure in the U.S. Senate. In the first head-to-head contest of Minnesota’s U.S. Senate campaign, McFadden’s strategy was to incessantly tie Franken to the increasingly unpopular Obama and draw attention to what he considers the incumbent’s partisan voting record.
Franken and McFadden didn’t break too much ground with regard to their policy positions, and in fact McFadden barely discussed the proposals he’s introduced so far this campaign. More than anything else, we got a hearty dose of the talking points we’ve heard many times before.
Primarily “97 percent,” a figure McFadden has based much of his campaign on at this point. During the debate, he said he’d be a more independent senator than Franken. When Franken argued that one of the metrics McFadden used to determine partisanship — the number of bipartisan bills he’s co-sponsored — is flawed because it gave conservative Sen. Ted Cruz a higher score, McFadden turned it around and called him “the Ted Cruz of the Democratic Party.”
Franken responded by listing a litany of items on which he’s sided with Republicans during his tenure in the U.S. Senate: workforce training, pharmaceutical safety, the farm bill, a veteran’s bill, and so on.
“In an era where there’s been a lot of gridlock, I’ve worked across party lines to find common sense solutions to things,” he said.
Mining and energy policies
On the actual issues, the candidates didn’t offer much new information. The debate’s early topics included a few right in McFadden’s wheelhouse, such as mining and energy. He argued more should be done to speed up the permitting process for mining and oil pipeline projects.
“We have the opportunity to be energy independent, which is historical, and a game changer,” he said. “And what energy independence allows me to do for you is put more money in your pocket.”
On the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine just an hour or so up the road from Duluth, Franken said he supports the mine, but that he wants to go through a permitting process — now nearly nine years in the making — that “gets it right” and protects the area’s environment. But McFadden said such a lengthy permitting process is “the definition of unreasonable, that’s not acceptable.”
“We have to demand that this process be efficient, we need effective government, I will fight for effective government,” he said.
Beyond that, McFadden spent more time trying to drag down Franken than prop himself up. On any number of issues, he swung at Franken’s record but didn’t bother highlighting any of his own proposals.
Take the Affordable Care Act. He called it a policy “based on lies,” arguing that it ended insurance policies, cut doctor availability and won’t lower costs as promised. He blamed Franken for casting the deciding vote on the bill, but except for a passing mention, he didn’t talk at all about the Obamacare replacement plan he introduced last week.
(For his part, Franken defended the law and its success at insuring more Minnesotans. He said the political reality is such it doesn’t matter what McFadden’s plan is, that, “if they repeal this, it goes back to square one. It goes back to a divided Congress and all of this goes away.”)
Education came up several times in the debate, and McFadden went hard at Minnesota’s poor record educating minority groups. He said he wants to “radically change the system for inner-city schools,” but didn’t say how (he supports a big expansion of funding for charter schools).
McFadden hammered Franken for not doing more to stop terror recruitment in Minnesota, but didn’t say what he’d do differently. To pay for more federal infrastructure spending, Franken proposed ending tax cuts for oil companies and cutting spending on the U.S. nuclear arsenal, but McFadden made only a vague reference to finding more money through tax reform.
On the general subject of improving the economy, Franken highlighted his work in the Senate on policies like job training, student loan refinancing and his support for a higher minimum wage and equal pay requirements for women.
McFadden plugged his support for energy and mining again, then managed to steer that discussion, like so many others, to Franken’s voting record, and “97 percent.” To which Franken responded:
“What was that number, 97?” he said, wryly. “Let me write that down, or I’ll forget it.”
Devin Henry can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry