Paul and Conway take selected shots but avoid making news in debate

10/03/2010 08:14 PM

The first nationally televised debate between Kentucky U.S. Senate candidates Rand Paul and Jack Conway on Sunday wasn’t exactly must-see TV.

It did, however, underscore how much the two candidates disagree with each other. And the candidates’ body language and the few exchanges they did have revealed how the two men don’t seem to like each other.

Aired on Fox News Sunday, it gave voters in Kentucky and viewers nationally a tidy recap of the campaign but not much of a debate. At onepoint host Chris Wallace even reminded the two men that they were allowed to engage each other in some back-and-forth.

“Feel free to talk to each other, if you would like to,” Wallace urged the two men.

Wallace mostly asked about the major storylines of the campaign – government spending, ways to address the long term viability of Medicare and Social Security, the issue of drug abuse in Kentucky and the health care law Congress passed in March.

Paul provided perhaps the most memorable one-liner after Wallace set him up by asking why he rarely mentions Conway in speeches and ads.

“We’re waiting for him to catch up a little bit in the polls and then we may refer to him more,” Paul said.

Here’s the cn|2 Politics analysis:


The bottom line: No new ground was plowed here. Both candidates sought to clarify positions while avoiding making news.


Wallace pressed Paul on potential cuts in benefits to Medicare and Social Security that he would support.

Paul said for future retirees “there will be changes in eligibility.” And he said that would include raising the retirement age.

That’s not necessarily new. Paul said throughout the spring, including at a March roundtable with voters in Manchester, that the retirement age for future retirees would likely have to be gradually raised to perhaps 70 years old.

Paul, however, declined to respond to Conway’s references to past statements Paul made about fixing Medicare with higher deductibles. (More on that later in the analysis).


Answering a question about how he would have voted on key pieces of legislation over the last few years, Conway said he would have supported “some of President Obama’s agenda.”

Wallace prefaced the question saying that Conway would have supported the stimulus bill and the health care reform bill, as well as the “Troubled Asset Relief Program” – also known as the bank bailout – which was passed by Congress at the end of President George W. Bush’s term.

“Actually, I wouldn’t have voted for the bailouts … There (was) not enough accountability in them,” Conway said.

That’s a little bit different than what he expressed to the Louisville Courier-Journal. While he didn’t explicitly say he would have voted for the bailout bill, he hinted that he would, saying if he were convinced it was necessary to keep the financial markets from imploding “I would have stood up and tried to save the economy.”

Click here to view that.


Neither candidate offered new promises or proposals. In fact, they said little about what they hoped to do if elected to the Senate.

Conway mentioned his “hometown tax credit” idea that he’s been running on. With that concept the government would give up to a 20% tax credit to companies who create new jobs in the states.

And Paul stuck to his promise that he would push for a balanced budget soon after he takes office. In recent weeks he has revised his promise to try to balance the budget in his first year in office to seeking to do so in five years, although he has said it’s unreasonable to provide details of how he would do so during the campaign.


There were plenty of examples of contrasts, although the candidates have done a pretty good job of highlighting those differences throughout the campaign so, again, there were few if any revelations.

Health care:

Conway, in answering questions about the health care law, reiterated his support for the concept of the health care bill but said he wants to build on it by allowing Medicare to buy prescription drugs in bulk.

Then he pivoted his answer to go after Paul. He referred to a quote from Paul from an April 2009 event saying that Medicare must become more market based. Paul said in those remarks that a higher deductable — $2,000 – might be necessary. That’s been the subject of Conway’s latest commercial.

“What I’m not for is a $2,000 deductible and taking our health care system back to a pre-World War II system, which is what Rand Paul is on the record as having said. So I’d like to fix health care and he’d like to repeal it,” Conway said.

Paul chose not to respond to Conway’s line of attack, letting the issue hang out there. Instead, Paul resumed his strident criticism of the health care reform law, which he and other Republicans refer to as “Obamacare.”

Paul warned that government tends to underestimate costs and said he was concerned the health care bill would turn into “a $3 trillion nightmare.”

Stimulus bill:

Conway said he supported the third of the $787 billion spending bill that went to tax cuts and the third that went to state governments.

“And a third supposedly went to shovel-ready projects where the administration hasn’t done that great a job,” Conway said. (The Wall Street Journal last month ran an article detailing how bureaucratic red tap attached to that part of the stimulus money have prevented many construction contracts from moving forward.)

Wallace asked Paul what he would say about the 17,000 jobs created or saved in Kentucky because of the stimulus bill, according to the state’s statistics.

Paul countered that Kentucky has lost about 17,000 private-sector jobs since the stimulus bill passed in the spring 2009.  U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics confirm that the civilian workforce is down by about that much.

“More importantly, we have to ask, ‘Where does the money come from?’ Jack acts like the money’s for free – just go and get it from Santa Claus in Washington.  The money is not for free. The money has to be borrowed,” he said.

“I think that amount of debt is threatening the very foundations of our economy,” Paul added. “It’s incredibly dangerous. It’s incredibly fool-hardy to have a trillion dollar stimulus and to have another trillion dollars into Obamacare.”


Paul got in a couple licks on Conway on two issues that have been common talking points during the race.

Bush tax cuts:

While Conway has broken with some in his party to voice support for continuing the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, Republicans have dogged him for comments he made in April to the Courier-Journal’s editorial board in which he says he favors cuts to expire.

Wallace pressed him about that.

Conway’s explanation on Sunday: “I was talking about the special interest provisions that allow companies to ship their jobs overseas. That’s what I was focused on in that particular interview.”

Paul immediately jumped on him, saying “You were for them before you were against them before you were for them again.”

But Paul then made a claim that he failed to back up. “Interestingly, at the Farm Bureau debate just a couple months ago, you said you were brining back the death tax” — a reference to the estate tax, which is temporarily suspended this year but is scheduled to be reinstated next year if Congress doesn’t act by Dec. 31.

It’s unclear what Paul was referring to because that event in July was one of the first times this summer that Conway explicitly endorsed keeping current tax cuts in place for an indefinite amount of time.

Wallace then moved on to ask Paul how Congress could balance the budget if the tax cuts are extended.

Paul’s response was that he would push for spending cuts.

It was Wallace, not Conway, who shot back: “There’s no way you’re going to get $4 trillion in spending cuts,” Wallace said.

But again, Paul gave no details or specifics about how he’d try to balance the budget, providing a small opening for Conway.

“Dr. Paul talks a lot about having a federal budget balanced all the way next year, he’s just not going to tell anybody how he’s going to do it this year,” Conway said.  “To do what he wants to do would be a 40% cut. And it would take the average Social Security benefit down from about $1,100 to $700.”

Cap and trade:

This has remained a challenging area for Conway.

He was quoted in Kentucky newspapers, including the Paducah Sun and Courier-Journal, in July 2009 saying in a statement that he supported changes in the House version of the bill that would create the market-based approach to curbing greenhouse gasses.

Throughout 2010, Conway has insisted that he opposes the concept and would try to protect the coal industry and Kentucky’s low energy prices.


Paul seemed more relaxed than Conway, who frequently glanced down and fidgeted with his hands. Both were smooth, if a bit rehearsed, in their responses. But each lacked any rhetorical flourishes to make the debate memorable.

Paul seemed most at ease and natural when talking about his concern about long-term debt – a foundation of his philosophy and candidacy.

Throughout the debate, Conway punctuated his points with references to people he knows who were affected by health care issues or drug abuse. On balance he reinforced the narrative of his campaign – that the race should be more about Kentucky issues and its citizens. But at times the references seemed awkwardly forced.

- Ryan Alessi


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