I’ve seen better debate performances
…unfortunately. I shouldn’t have to scream at my computer monitor while doing the dishes and watching tonight’s debate between Democratic Senator Russ Feingold and Oshkosh businessman Ron Johnson, but that’s what I found myself doing a couple of times. Johnson definitely put in a better performance Friday night, although once again he escaped without any punches landing for lasting damage.
The worst part of the night was when Johnson was bullied by Feingold on campaign finance law. Maybe I’m ultra-sensitive on the issue, but Johnson should not allow that fascist-wannabe Feingold demagogue on crushing the rights of Americans to freely organize to speak against lefty cranks like Feingold. At least Johnson didn’t knuckle under. I’ll tell you what Feingold, when you give back that money from Move On and your Hollywood supporters, then we’ll talk about special interests influencing elections, special interests like the lobbyist you stuck in your ad trying to pass her off as a normal person.
The other clunker moment was the Ayn Rand question. I think Johnson should have taken the time to more completely address what the book is about. Heck, I hate the book, but I thought the question was so biased it sounded like it was written by Feingold, and Feingold was ready for it.
Actually, most of the questions sounded like they were written by Feingold’s staff. But that’s beside the point.
I don’t think Johnson was hurt by his performance (there certainly wasn’t a killer moment) but I think even his campaign would wish that Friday’s debate had occurred tonight rather than vice versa. Where I think the debate hurt was that if there were any undecideds watching tonight’s debate, they would not be as comfortable with Johnson as they were after Friday’s debate.
That said, I wonder how long Feingold is going to tout raising taxes, raising the FICA tax, the unpopular health care law (does Feingold really believe it was popular?), and the stimulus law that Feingold admitted tonight was not meant to create any permanent jobs. Oh, and good to see Feingold taking the anti-enforcement line on illegal immigration, too.
If you were looking for material to appear in television ads, I hope Johnson’s people took good notes, and I suspect they did.
National Review has some of the Q&A highlights posted.
Update! National Review’s Andrew Stiles has a completely different take on tonight’s debate than me. I’m not sure how, frankly, but these things are subjective. We’ll see which of us is the East German judge on this. Here’s a bit of what he saw.
Johnson scored big on a counter to one of Feingold’s standard lamentations — “woe is me, the lonely independent voice in a Congress of partisans,” etc. — by bringing up Feingold’s (decisive) votes on the stimulus package and health-care reform, two highly partisan efforts. Feingold responded that because that the stimulus wasn’t partisan because the two Maine Republicans voted for it, and this seemed to cause a bit of a commotion in the crowd and considerable laughter, as Johnson fittingly threw a look of disbelief in Feingold’s direction. This was an absolute low point for Feingold and exposed his biggest weak point. He looked more than ever like an incumbent fighting a losing battle.
Overall, many of the issues discussed were the same and both candidates made many of the same points they did last week. Johnson continued to play up his business experience (and lack of political experience or ambition) as an asset that he could bring to Washington to help create jobs and grow the economy. He was far more effective in relaying that message tonight — “I know how to create jobs and compete in the global economy because I do it every day.” — while Feingold attempted to cast Johnson as the face of “big business” that cares nothing about the little guy. This dynamic came to a head when one of the panelists asked about Johnson outspoken admiration for Ayn Rand and in particular her work “Atlas Shrugged.” Johnson very articulately described how the work ought to serve as a warning as to what can happen when too many members of society become reliant on too few producers, while Feingold played the populist card and accusing Johnson of thinking producers are “better than the rest of us.” Feingold was a bit whiny. He kept demanding credit for all the good things provided in the stimulus and the health-care bill, as if that would magically change the state of the economy.
On health-care reform, Feingold persisted in his defense of Obamacare, saying “I want what I voted for, I want this bill,” and here came off like a captain resigned to go down with his ship. He tried to break down the individual provisions of the bill, some of which are popular on their own, and that is about the only approach he can possibly take. Johnson reiterated his pledge to repeal the bill, a position supported by a majority of Wisconsin voters. I wrote here last week that if Johnson could simply communicate his message more clearly, show less nerves and speak deliberately, he could really open up this race in his favor. I think he did that tonight. He proved himself against an experienced politician, countered effectively and made Feingold every bit the out of touch incumbent on several occasions. Johnson was all energy tonight. I expect he will build on this success in the next (and final) debate later this month.
I refuse to write Feingold off just yet, no matter what the polls may say. But after watching Johnson’s performance tonight, it’s clear that — if elected — he will be a force to be reckoned with in the Senate. And Democrats aren’t the only ones who should be taking notice.
To which I say, really?