In the first of three debates for Ohio’s seat in the U.S. Senate, Democratic incumbent Sherrod Brown and Republican challenger Josh Mandel agreed on little and clashed on a lot. Each candidate mostly focused on the opposing candidate's record, but the debate today did move to substantial differences in policy at some points.
The debate started with opening statements from a noticeably feisty Brown, who criticized Mandel for calling his vote for the auto bailout “un-American.” On the other side of the aisle, Mandel began his opening statement with a joke about shaving before he turns 36. The joke was the last time either of the men spoke with a light heart.
The candidates blasted each other mostly for their records. Mandel touted Ohio's and the nation’s higher unemployment rate since Brown took office in 2006, energy prices and the U.S. debt. He also said the Senate had not passed a budget in three years, although Congress has actually passed budget resolutions in that time.
Brown fired back with claims Mandel had filled the state treasurer’s office with cronies. He also criticized Mandel for running for four different political offices in seven years. In his closing statement, Brown said Mandel is “too concerned about running for his next job” to be trusted.
On substance, Brown and Mandel criticized just about everything about each other. Brown claimed Mandel signed away his “right to think” by agreeing to lobbyist Grover Norquist’s pledge to not raise taxes while in office. He said the pledge makes it so if Mandel does take office, he’ll never be able to close tax loopholes for big corporations.
Mandel defended the pledge by saying, “I’m proud to stand for lower taxes in our state and lower taxes in our country.” He added, “I will do everything I can to advocate for lower taxes across the board for the middle class and job creators as well.”
The term “job creators” is typically used in politics to reference wealthy Americans, who Republicans claim create jobs through the theory of trickle-down economics. The economic theory states that wealthy Americans will hire more lower-class Americans if they have more money and freedom, essentially creating a trickle-down effect on wealth from the rich to the poor. Although Republicans still tout the theory, some economists, including Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman, say the financial crisis of 2008 and the deregulation that led to it prove trickle-down economics do not work.
The candidates also debated their positions on the auto bailout. Mandel said he would not have voted for the auto bailout if he was in the Senate in 2009. In his defense, he cited the experience of Delphi workers, who lost part of their pensions as part of the deal auto companies made with workers after the federal bailout. Mandel then said, “I’m not a bailout senator. He’s the bailout senator.”
Brown responded by saying, “These are real jobs and real people.” He then cited examples of people helped by the growing auto industry. Brown’s arguments are backed by economic data, which has repeatedly credited the growing auto industry for the nation’s growing economy. In the first quarter of 2012, the auto industry was credited for half of the nation’s economic growth.
When he was asked about higher education, Brown established the key difference between the candidates in terms of economic policy. Brown said his policies in favor of government investment in higher education are about supporting the middle class to create growth that starts in the middle and spreads out, while Mandel supports tax cuts that emphasize a trickle-down approach. Mandel did not deny the claims, and instead blamed Brown’s policies for the high unemployment rate and debt issues.
The men continued to show similar contrasts on the budget, taxes and economy throughout the entire debate, but there seemed to be some common ground regarding energy independence. When the topic came to hydraulic fracturing — or “fracking” — Brown said becoming energy independent would have to involve all possible energy sources. In substance, Mandel agreed, although he also praised fracking regulations recently passed by the Ohio legislature and Gov. John Kasich.
As far as energy issues go, the agreement stopped there. When Brown was asked about President Barack Obama's alleged “war on coal,” Brown said there was no war on coal and claimed there are more coal jobs and coal produced in Ohio than there were five years ago. Mandel disagreed and claimed there is a war on coal. He added if Obama is the general in the war on coal, Brown is Obama's “lieutenant.” Brown previously supported federal regulations on mercury that some in the coal industry, including the Ohio Coal Association, claim will force coal-fired power plants to shut down. The regulations go into effect in 2015.
On abortion, Mandel proudly claimed he was pro-life, while Brown said, “Unlike Josh Mandel, I trust Ohio women to make their own health care decisions.” Brown also criticized Mandel for not establishing exceptions for rape, incest and the health of the mother in his anti-abortion stance.
Many more issues, from term limits to Middle Eastern culture, were covered in the debate. The candidates drew sharp contrasts in all these areas with Brown typically holding the liberal position and Mandel typically holding the conservative position. But despite the feisty language and deep policy contrasts, when the debate ended, the candidates smiled, shook hands and patted each other on the back. They will meet again in Columbus on Thursday and Cincinnati on Oct. 25.