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What the Devil won't tell you

Calling B.S. on McSally, Kelly debate — and there's plenty to go around

More rhetorical shoveling than soaring in Senate head-to-head

It wasn’t the Cleveland Clusterplug, but it sure wasn’t Lincoln-Douglas either. 

U.S. Sen. Martha McSally and Democratic candidate Mark Kelly went accusation-to-accusation Tuesday in a TV-studio debate in Phoenix.

I’m not sure. I maybe reading too much into it, but I’m pretty sure McSally may be trying to tag Kelly's back with a nickname.

Was it Counterpunch Kelly? No. No. That’s not it … let’s see …

Maybe Counterclockwise Kelly? I think that’s wrong, too. What was it? It was hard to spot. McSally only mentioned it 3,581 times. In the first two minutes.

Mark “Counterfeit” Kelly is no doubt a trending hashtag but I'm not sure it be enough to bolster what polls suggest is McSally's flagging campaign to fill out the last two years of the late Sen. John McCain’s seat. He’s a counterfeit, see, because he talks like a moderate but is a secret radical. Or so Martha McSally thinks. Or at least so she says.

It sounded like a gimmick at first, gained traction later on but then grew tiresome after an hour. Half as much might have gone twice as far. A quarter as much would've gone even farther.

Desperation moves can work. Kelly didn’t innoculate himself by evading questions. Yet it was also hard for McSally to really drive the point home by following Kelly’s lead in what political pros politely call “answering the question that should have been asked” rather than the one actually presented. 

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Also, Kelly had a message to repeat of his own: America has 4 percent of the world’s population but represents 21 percent of global coronavirus deaths because Donald Trump screwed the pooch.

The styles contrasted. Kelly was cool and calm, if evasive at times and wholly in favor of sunsets and grandma's cooking. McSally came in hot and stayed hot, with her rapid-fire approach to debates. So she took the biggest punch of the night and had the best moment.

She challenged Kelly on whether he would support President Donald Trump’s ban on Chinese travel in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. Kelly then cold-cocked her:

“Sen. McSally, you would understand this as a pilot. You guys did step one of the emergency procedure and then you didn’t do anything else. That is a colossal failure.”

When she was asked about Trump’s post-mortem slights on McCain, she said: "I’ve publicly and privately and repeatedly talked to President Trump asked him to stop his attacks on John McCain. Quite frankly it pisses me off when he does that.”

Some fleshy humanity and salted language is always welcome when debate coaches are involved.

Though if by publicly defending McCain, McSally means she completely failed to mention Trump’s name but did attack and blame the media for Trump’s action, then she did that.

A real-time STFU would have been nice.

Debates are a bit of a “you had to be there” sort of thing when you are covering it as a news story. It’s like the person who walks into the living room three-quarters through a movie and asks you “So what’s happened?”

Just watch the damned thing online.

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I’m just going to call Bull Pucky on some of the elements, arguments and lazy attacks that are cliched to the point they endanger democracy.

Votes are bought

Mark Kelly continuously said McSally only votes how she votes because of corporate money.

Take climate change:

“With Sen. McSally, you just have to follow the money. She took hundreds of thousands of dollars from the oil company and gives them a $20 billion tax cut.”

This is the laziest of all political attacks and it feeds into a falsehood that’s injecting nitrous oxide into cynicism. It suggests the disagreements that we have as a nation are illegitimate.

The national debate on virtually any issue concerns where should the government do more and where should the government do less. The money then lines up accordingly.

Don’t get me wrong. Money matters. But what more likely drives McSally more is how skeptical her base is about issues like climate change.

Pew Research did a poll last year about climate change and the environment that found just 14 percent of Republicans born in the Baby Boom generation think man-made climate change is a thing. Also, 17 percent of Republicans who say they have a “high degree” of science knowledge think it’s a problem at all.

McSally takes a somewhat myopic view of innovation as a solution but the Left can be overly dismissive of how much the market can help, in my humble opinion. She also has a point about China and rare earth materials we need for renewable energy tech that gets zero attention.

I’m willing to bet that McSally believes in private sector solutions because she’s a conservative and not because they pay her to think that way.

We can debate the degree to which corporate money sets up think tanks and media outlets to spread ideas better for big business. They are leading people where they want to go.

Let’s face it. The biggest threat to McSally is a Trump tweet. And that’s just because it’s what the Republican base pays attention to, meaning it comes from the people.

If publicly financed campaigns would give us legislatures that don’t kowtow to business, then explain to me the Arizona Legislature and the state’s Clean Elections program.

Lousy health care geometry

McSally stipulated the following conditions in health care: The individual mandate in Obamacare is gone and that’s a good thing. Prices are going up. Pre-existing conditions must be protected and people who have them should not pay more.

After touting the end of the individual mandate, she declared: "Insurance companies should not be allowed to deny people insurance for pre-existing conditions or raise their costs."

I want my square to be a circle.

If we are going to use an insurance model – be it 100 percent market driven or Medicare for All – prices come down when more people buy insurance before they need it. If I got 1,000 young, healthy people who will not need any health care in a year, I can charge them only the cost of mailing them a bill. If I got 1,000 people in a pool who all have, or have had, coronavirus, everyone is paying a hell of a lot more.

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Cost-savings is largely about spreading risk. Think “group discount.” The bigger the employer, the better the health care.

So President Donald Trump eliminated the penalty for Obamacare’s individual mandate and costs went up? Allow me this highly academic retort: “No duh."

McSally wants to cover pre-existing conditions and make sure those folks don’t pay more for insurance, she says. Well, she is either going to have to have more people buy in or subsidize the hell out of it.

Health care policy is complicated. This part is not: Sick people are more expensive to cover than healthy people.

Senator X voted for Y and therefor believes Z

McSally has been hammered for two election cycles for her support of legislation that would have removed pre-existing conditions by repealing Obamacare.

Technically she did. Buuuutttt … Look, given her silence over a whole bunch of nasty stuff Trump has done or her complicity in his madman tendencies, we can chalk this up to karma.

Still, what McSally has not done is cast a final vote eliminating pre-existing condition protections as law. She did, so long as she was firing legislative blanks or simply loading a bill into the breach, sure. 

She voted in 2017 to move a bill to the Senate where everyone knew there was no getting the votes for a replacement to Obamacare without pre-existing conditions protections. Then the Senate failed and McSally was forever screwed.

The reason the Senate failed is explained above: They wanted the protection without the price increase but to do it without any mandates or subsidies. They want their circle to be a square.

I’m calling B.S. here because any senator votes on legislative packages that may include a bunch of stuff they don’t like to get stuff they want. This has happened forever and it’s not necessarily revealing of a deeper held philosophical grounding. It just gets treated like that in debates and it’s a bit of a cheap shot.

Votes are a lousy proxy for beliefs.

Which brings us to…

Answer the damn questions.

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Politicians go through debate prep and political pros teach their candidates how to pivot. You asked me this, let me talk about that instead.

When McSally was asked if she was proud of her support of Donald Trump, she talked about the policies where she coincidentally agreed with a Trump on policy.

When Kelly was asked what his support of the public option would cost and who would pay, he pivoted to McSally’s record and explained the need. He did not answer specifics in a pattern that pretty much summed up his performance.

In both cases, candidates insult the intelligence of the voters. Trump’s campaign style is 95 percent toxic but he found 5 percent genius in 2016. Confess emphatically. I did it. I’d do it again.

When it comes to rancid Trumpism, that’s frightening. The lessons it teaches candidates or officeholders is that honesty isn’t only survivable, it’s preferable.

Are you proud of your support for President Trump: “No. Not always. He’s the president I’ve been given and it’s not my fault he agrees with me.”

What would the public option cost: “Health care isn’t free now. You are paying for it every time you buy a car or a candy bar. If the government sells you a cheaper and better policy, what do you care?”

And Mark, you gotta know where you stand on the filibuster. Voters probably don’t care as much as “opinion makers” about an arcane Senate procedure that leaves elections inconsequential by requiring 60 votes to allow a bill to be considered.

This was his answer: "We don’t even know if this is going to come up for a debate. If it does, I will give it thoughtful consideration and do what’s in the best interest of Arizona” as I support both rainbows and puppy dogs.

Voters deserve an answer, though. If elected and Democrats hold the Senate majority, will you turn all the power of lawmaking over to Mitch McConnell's minority? Will Democratic voters realize that when Republicans win unified control, that will have consequences too?

Moderators softballs to Kelly

The media is already accused of being liberal and I have a lot of problems with such accusations. The moderators were practically hostile to McSally in a way that even made my eyes roll.

Arizona PBS managing editor Ted Simons was particularly bad here, constantly giving quarter to Kelly whether he needed it or not.

The nadir of this was “Do you think Sen. McSally will always protect pre-existing conditions?” Oh, c’mon! Please, Mark. Take 60 seconds of air time to hammer home your central campaign theme.

Also, when McSally was thwacking Kelly for running a sophisticated radical political organization, he chose numerous times not to say “Because my wife was shot in the head, can I help you?” That was his decision, probably drilled into him by his campaign team. “Arizonans like guns. Don’t talk about your support for stricter gun laws.”

She also hit him repeatedly over trips he took to China and with aghast indignation quoted him calling those trips “The most meaningful experience in my life.” Again, very simple block: “Uhhh, I met Gabby there.” He did. He met Gabrielle Giffords on one of those trips to China.

But the moderators stopped the debate and said “Mark would you like to explain this?” on issues like qualified immunity, gun control and his China record. That’s his job. Not yours!

Also, moderators are refs. They shouldn't be commenting after the fact because they were a part of it. Yet they did just that for a half hour after the debate. Hand the mic off to somebody else.

When did we declare war on China?

Was it just me or was there a lot more talk about China than there was coronavirus?

The fact that I’m asking that question is a big win for McSally and it’s totally legit. Why is Kelly’s business connections with the fastest-growing economy in the world disqualifying? Christ, Donald Trump’s company and kids have stacks and stacks of business deals with China.

I’m sorry. Mitch McConnell. Elaine Chao? McSally’s floor leader married into a Taiwanese family fortune with extensive ties to China.

Where I'm calling B.S. is that there is yet another massive martial undertaking brewing that Democrats like Kelly don’t seem to want to be tagged as “soft on.”

Let’s review the bidding: a while back, Democrats afraid of seeming soft on Communism allowed that fear to push the country into Vietnam. Democrats afraid of seeming soft on terrorism hid under their desks during the run-up the the Iraq War. How’d that turn out? And Democrats not wanting to seem soft on crime gave the country mass incarceration.

That’s B.S. Democrats need to call before they let the Right push our country into a new ungodly horror show.

The wall works

This is as close as I’m going to come to fact-checking because it bugs me.

McSally repeatedly said Trump’s wall along the border – such as it is – has stopped illegal immigration from Mexico.

This is just crap. If the rain stops, the roof isn’t keeping me dry. Illegal immigration slowed down years before Trump took office and reached 20-year lows in Obama’s last year.

Also, when American unemployment surges, the jobs stop and immigration slows. We saw this in 2008. The better Mexico’s economy does, the fewer people come here.

Both sides did OK

Overall, the more I reflect (i.e. type furiously, it’s not like I’m in a Zen garden here), the debate made sense. McSally played her role pretty well. She was aggressive and tried to set the terms of the debate. She often succeeded.

Polls show Kelly has a comfortable lead and gained nothing by engaging. So he stayed above the fray. He failed to land some easy counterpunches left open because McSally comes in so hard she often fails to cover her vulnerabilities.

Her biggest vulnerability is that her president insists on being the center of attention and taunting a majority of voters. He treats swing voters as losers and suckers and wants everything to be about him, including the U.S. Senate race in Arizona.

Wish granted.

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Rob Schumacher/Arizona Republic, pool

Democratic candidate Mark Kelly and U.S. Sen. Martha McSally let some pony pucks fly with the help of moderators at Tuesday's debate.

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