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Coleman vs. Franken vs. Barkley: Red hot debate for red hot U.S. Senate race

By Eric Black | Monday, Oct. 6, 2008

ROCHESTER, MINN. – Sunday night’s red hot first debate probably didn’t settle anything, but pretty well encapsulated the state of what may be turning back into one of the nation’s hottest U.S. Senate races.

Although Republican Sen. Norm Coleman and DFL nominee Al Franken pretty much accused one another of lying constantly, no big gaffes were committed. Haymakers were thrown. Whether they landed is mostly in the eye of the beholder. But my guess is that the debate didn’t change the race much, especially since it wasn’t on statewide TV (although MPR carried it live and will rebroadcast it at noon today).

Coleman relied heavily on his long-standing reaching-across-the-aisle-to-get-things-done theme, and said that Franken is a rude, angry big-mouth but “he doesn’t have a record of service to Minnesota.”

Franken recapped his two-year litany of criticisms of Coleman’s voting record, portraying the incumbent as wrong (and stubbornly unwilling to admit it) about the Iraq war, too close a follower of Bush policies that have hurt the middle class, and too beholden to special interests from big oil, to big pharma, to big insurance.

Independence-ite Dean Barkley, whose rising poll ratings have shaken up the race, had an enviable position. Neither Coleman nor Franken showed any interest in criticizing him. He described Coleman as having already made two “trillion dollar mistakes,” referring to the Iraq war and the failure to regulate the financial markets until they were crashing.

Barkley said his only major area of disagreement with Franken is that he is tired of politicians who promise something to everyone while running up the national debt, and offered instead to freeze federal spending and suggested (but didn’t quite commit to) major cuts in defense spending. “We’ve got a new reality in this country,” Barkley said. “We’re broke.”

The 90-minute debate was organized by Debate Minnesota and located in a field house at Rochester Community and Technical College.

Although the audience appeared (based on T-shirts and campaign buttons) to be dominated by Franken supporters, Barkley got the only spontaneous burst of the night (from an audience of 1,000 that had been ordered not to applaud) when he said, “The best thing we can do for our troops is bring them home.” 

That’s the summary, now the details (hang on for a twisty ride):

Some Coleman supporters sported an edgy T-shirt I hadn’t seen before: “No Franken Way.” When Coleman first appeared (and before the audience was admonished to stay quiet), Coleman’s supporters also chanted, “Six more years. Six more years.”

Opening statements
Barkley inveighed against the “evil twins” of “partisanship and gridlock” that were “tightening their grip” on Washington.

Coleman said the economic crisis has created a “nation on edge” and said the $700 billion bailout package, for which he voted last week, was “not the way government is supposed to work.” Coleman, whose campaign has portrayed Franken as an angry man, said he, too, is angry but “anger doesn’t solve problems” unless it is “anger that brings change by bringing people together.”

Franken, who grew up middle-class in the 1950s, said that was a time when being a middle-class American was “so lucky.” But that the middle close nowadays “is not so lucky.”

Big bailout mixed with energy independence
All three candidates criticized the bailout package, but Coleman voted for it and Barkley said he would have reluctantly done so. Franken said he would have opposed it.

Coleman said the bailout “doesn’t solve the problem” and more is necessary to “get the economy moving again.” One key to that goal, he said, is a goal of making America energy independent  by “doing it all,” meaning drilling for more domestic oil, increasing reliance on nuclear electrical plants, promoting conservation and subsidizing wind power, solar power, biomass and all other alternative means of clean energy.

Barkley and Franken (and, I gather, pretty much every candidate in the country) agreed with this, but Franken said Coleman’s voting record contradicted this devotion to alternative energy. He said Coleman had voted against many such measures during his term.

This led to one of many frustrating exegeses of congressional votes that occurred during the evening (and often occurs in such races involving an incumbent’s voting) where Coleman claimed to have voted for many measures favoring the very thing that Franken accused him of voting against. He complained that Franken takes a vote with many provisions in it and assigns motives to Coleman’s votes (he voted for this because it had tax breaks for big oil, he voted against this because it would have imposed a tax increase on millionaires) that Coleman said do not reflect his true motives. Franken averred that he could cite many votes establishing Coleman’s true record. But, finishing this piece in the dark of a Sunday evening, I will have to admit that I can’t advance the question much.

Barkley said the problems that made the bailout necessary had “happened on [Coleman’s] watch” over the last six years and constituted “the biggest malfeasance of government in the nation’s history.” But what really bothers him about the bailout is that it caused the national debt to shoot up from $9.6 trillion to $11.3 trillion, a burden on future generations that he said amounts to “financial child abuse.”

Franken said the bailout bill “isn’t going to do much,” does little to address the underlying housing crisis and the loss of home equity suffered by many Americans and reminds him of pumping the water of out of a basement during a flood without fixing the hole in the roof that allowed the basement to flood and while it’s still pouring down rain.

He also said that while Coleman portrays himself as reluctantly supporting the bailout, Coleman actually “cheer-led the process.”

Coleman said the bailout bill actually included the renewal of big tax credits for alternative energy, yet Franken, who claims to want those alternatives to develop, would have voted against the bill. Franken replied that a $700 billion financial bailout is simply too big a deal to pass just because a bunch of other good things were thrown into the package to attract votes. This led to a second recurring theme, with Coleman suggesting that Franken doesn’t know how to get things done, since he would vote against bills to accomplish important, necessary goals just because he doesn’t agree with everything in them. (He tried to illustrate this with a side reference to Franken’s objections to the Medicare Part D, subscription drug subsidies for seniors, but there has to be some limit to how many alleys this paragraph can go down.)

Barkley said we’ve been hearing about the urgent need to move toward energy independence since the Carter administration, “and what has appreciably change? Nothing…All we’ve gotten is talk.”

War, Peace, Iraq, etc.

When moderator Bill Salisbury (my esteemed former colleague, political reporter for the Pi-Press) asked the candidates to describe the national security threats facing the nation, Barkley and Franken ganged up on Coleman over Iraq.

Franken, who said the nation didn’t focus hard enough on finishing the job in Afghanistan before switching focus to Iraq, said he found it hard to believe the Coleman still can’t admit that the war in Iraq was a mistake.

Barkley called Iraq one of Coleman’s trillion dollar mistakes, said the U.S. cannot afford to continue playing the role of world policeman, said the U.S. spends more on military than the rest of the world combined and it was time to discuss whether we should be spending less and whether we really still need so many troops in Germany, Japan and elsewhere. (I asked him after the debate if was advocating closing those bases; he said no, but we should discuss whether to close them.)

Although Coleman did say at a June press conference that his initial vote for the war was not wrong, Coleman never did reply last night on whether the Iraq war was a mistake (for an eye-glazingly exhaustive treatment of the Franken and Coleman journeys on Iraq, see here), but he countered, as he often has, by paying tribute to the job the troops have done in Iraq and asserting that his opponents favored cutting off funds for the troops.

This led to a dismal, and all-too-familiar back and forth that often ensues when the silly phrase about cutting off funds for the troops is invoked. Barkley said he had never advocated cutting off funds for the troops and offered Coleman a hundred bucks if he could produce evidence to the contrary.

Franken escalated by saying that, in fact, Coleman was the only one on the stage who had ever voted to cut off funds for the troops.

I hope you have tumbled to this dismal distraction before now. Sarah Palin and Joe Biden rehearsed the same thing last week when Palin said Barack Obama tried to cut off funds for the troops and Biden replied that McCain had voted to cut off funds. The gag is this: Republicans have, for years now, referred to any Democrats who want to attach a timeline for withdrawal to a defense appropriations bill as wanting to cut off funds for the troops, as if those Democrats favored cutting the pay off, or leaving them in the field without helmets and ammunition. But the Dems couldn’t seem to explain that it was the stay-the-course policy in Iraq that they opposed, and wanted to defund.

Then, after the Dems got control of Congress and actually passed a bill that funded the operations in Iraq – tied to a timeline for beginning to withdraw troops – they started to claim that Republicans who voted against that bill  were voting to – you guessed it – cut off funds for the troops. Coleman and McCain both voted against that bill (not because they wanted to defund any troops but because they objected to the timeline) and President Bush vetoed it.

Hey, here’s an idea. How about if we call this dispute what it actually is: a disagreement over whether a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq should be attached to defense appropriations bills? Where was I?

Oh, yes. Salisbury followed up by asking how the candidates felt about the Bush doctrine that pledged preemptive wars. Barkley said he called it “the cowboy doctrine,” and “I don’t think we can afford to be cowboys anymore.”

Coleman said presidents have to have the authority to engage in preventive wars, but it should be done judiciously and in consultation with Congress. He said that Franken had also favored the Iraq war in the early stages.

Franken, who did favor the war in the early stages, said he was very conflicted at the time because “there were reasons to go to war and there were reasons not to go to war. All the reasons to go to war turned out to be false.” He also said the war had turned out to be “a tragic blunder of epic proportions.”

The ad wars
An audience member asked about the barrage of negative ads that Franken and Coleman have run against each other.

Franken said: “We’ve been running ads about Norm Coleman’s record. So they’re negative.” (Nervous laughter from the audience.) But he defended them because they are substantive ads about his opponent’s record, not personal character attacks like the ads Coleman has run against him. But Franken said bring on the attack ads, because he believed they would backfire against Coleman.

Coleman replied that he had a record against which his opponent could run. But Franken’s career as a comedian, satirist, radio host was the only record against which Coleman could run. “His record is his career. He doesn’t have a record of service to Minnesota.”

Barkley said he was fortunate not to have enough money to run nasty ads against his opponents. He said negative ad wars work only if there is no alternative, but in this race, there is an alternative: himself.

In the link below you will hear three two-minute closing statements, in which each candidate summarized the fundamental case for his candidacy. It starts with Barkley, then Coleman, then Franken.

Eric Black writes about national and state politics, foreign affairs and other topics. He can be reached at eblack [at] minnpost [dot] com.

AUDIO: Here are the candidates’ closing statements during the debate, starting with Barkley, then Coleman and Franken.