This debate was a pissing-match. But not between the candidates. Rather, their supporters, gathered together in a room, attempted to dominate one another by shouting out “liar” when either candidate spoke, booing, chanting their candidate’s name, etc.
For those sitting in the room trying to listen, it made for an unpleasant evening trying to hear their candidates over the shouting. I gather that at home, it was a more enjoyable experience (if you find debates enjoyable).
I question the decision (I assume by The Journal) to put Edward Achorn on the panel, which seems to be the wrong kind of person to put on a Democratic Party debate. Perhaps a Democrat might’ve been better suited to ask Democrats questions. That said, I can see the other side, which is that any Democrat would’ve been compromised in their support, and a right-winger is unlikely to care either way (personally, I think there are enough disaffected Democrats who dislike both candidates to find one willing to ask fair questions).
David Cicilline won this debate, but not as strongly as he should’ve. Without the hour spread out over four candidates, Anthony Gemma was without a doubt an opposition candidate. But not an ideal one. Mr. Gemma was unable to name a single policy or vote of Mr. Cicilline’s that he would’ve done differently, nor was he able to remember the name of a Republican he admired (someone from Texas who does legislation around breast cancer).
Interestingly, Mr. Gemma’s most forceful attack on Mr. Cicilline’s time as Mayor of Providence appeared to be attacking the stewardship of the education system. He also proposed that a program similar to “Race to the Top” be instituted to reduce higher education costs. He was short on specifics, but so was Mr. Cicilline, who said it was a difficult issue.
There were a couple of questions that seemed like neither candidate did well. For instance, when asked about what specifically they would cut, neither candidate came out in favor of massive defense spending cuts; even though a May 2012 poll by the Program for Public Consultation found that on average, 76% of Americans favored a 23% defense spending cut. Mr. Cicilline made a decent point about tax expenditures being spending rather than revenue, but he wasn’t able to name a specific tax expenditure other than the 40 billion in oil tax credits.
Both candidates seemed not too far apart on Iran (do everything possible to prevent war, then go to war). It would’ve been nice if a discussion of Syria had come up, since that conflict doesn’t offer the easy answer of “we have to stop nuclear weapons proliferation.” A real divisive issue was the USPS. Mr. Gemma took the businessman strategy: “streamline” the agency, and cut Saturday service. Mr. Cicilline attacked the laws that force the USPS to pre-fund their pension system, which puts it at a disadvantage with its private-sector competitors.
Oddly, a question on extending the terms of U.S. Representatives raised two viewpoints which were completely valid. Mr. Gemma chose the term-limits argument (cribbing from Bill Lynch’s playbook from the 2010 primary). Mr. Cicilline chose the campaign finance reform argument. Mr. Gemma’s viewpoint aligns with that of Jack Abramoff, who recommends it as a way to prevent the kind of corruption he was convicted as. And campaign finance reform was a bipartisan solution up until the moment Republicans decided they didn’t like it (plus it’s the right thing to do). Mr. Cicilline said exactly the right line in talking about this: “corporations are not people.” Mr. Gemma wasn’t as convincing trying to thread the needle on the need for term limits, yet acknowledging the implication is that good Congress people will be thrown out.
In fairness to Mr. Gemma, I thought it was wrong of the moderator Tim White to push on him for making RI-specific proposals that seem irrelevant to the U.S. House when one question asked specifically about who in the state deserves blame for 38 Studios (neither candidate blamed anyone specific), and another asked to grade Lincoln Chafee for no apparent reason (Mr. Cicilline refused to answer saying he wouldn’t grade anyone he had a working relationship with, Mr. Gemma said “C”). That said, Mr. Gemma does need to be pushed on it, because it’s stupid.
Finally voter fraud. For the crowd, this was the issue to intervene in. There isn’t much to say here. Either you believe Mr. Gemma or you think he’s a liar. Moderator Tim White eventually cut Mr. Gemma’s explanation of the issue short, saying that Mr. Gemma was still failing to provide actual evidence. We learned that Mr. Gemma has spent about $40,000 in campaign cash on his investigation of Mr. Cicilline. Mr. Cicilline eventually waggled his finger in Mr. Gemma’s face, saying that Mr. Gemma was not focusing on the correct issue at hand, instead talking about people holed up in their attics.
And that’s ultimately where the candidates differed. Mr. Cicilline returned numerous times to arguing against the Republican plan for America. Mr. Gemma remained focused on voter fraud and conspiratorial election-rigging, neglecting the Providence attack line that really worries voters, and makes even Mr. Cicilline’s supporters worried about his prospects in November.
But Mr. Cicilline never turned Mr. Gemma’s own talking points against him; he never said something like “how can Mr. Gemma talk about trust and integrity when he’s lying to Rhode Islanders about voter fraud and inflating his social media presence?”
Perhaps that was intentional; Mr. Cicilline’s focus on defeating the Republican Party led to two moments where he trumped Mr. Gemma. Mr. Cicilline would remain loyal to the Democratic candidate, even if his opponent who had so smeared him won; and Mr. Cicilline also admired the respect and honor Mr. Gemma has shown to his mother through the Gloria Gemma Foundation. In comparison, Mr. Gemma only like Mr. Cicilline’s tie, and would not vote for Mr. Cicilline.
I think the WPRI poll was more important to the coverage of this race than this debate.
- No handshake between the candidates.
- Sorry I only got a picture of Mr. Cicilline. Mr. Gemma left before I could snap a photo with my iPhone camera.
- I hope that the WPRI employee who was carried off the stage is okay.