Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin and State Representative Kristi Noem have debated live five times now. Yesterday's high-noon debate at the Women's Building (isn't that inherently unfair to B. Thomas Marking?) at the South Dakota State Fair was the first one I've attended. The experience changed my mind in one significant way. Herseth Sandlin is no longer our little princess smiling and waving her way to Washington. She's a fighter, ready to play hardball of the highest sort, all facts and figures that her opponent can't beat. Noem is the new pageant princess, not paying attention, stuck on her note cards, and thinking she's entitled to win on emotion and image.
Stephanie Herseth Sandlin won Sunday's debate on all points, substance and style. Let me put on my debate-judge hat and tell you why. I'll break this up into a series of posts: a 90-minute debate provides a lot of material!
Opening Statements: Kristi Noem drew first speaking position. She spent half of her opening pointing out her photogenic family members in the audience (husband and comrade in speed Bryon, kids, Grandma Arnold) and pointing out how wonderful the State Fair is and how "our family always comes to the State Fair." Noem also included a sprinkling of folksy "Well goodness sakes" and similar Palinisms (are you running for Congress or a remake of The Waltons?).
When she turned to policy, she still wrapped it in family and emotion, with her well-worn story about her family going into debt for ten years to pay off the estate tax after the tragedy of her father's death (a story about which there are some pertinent legal and financial questions, like why there was an estate tax if Mom was still alive, and just how rich the Arnolds must have been to even qualify for the estate tax threshold). Noem then noted that her opponent's very first vote each session has been to elect Nancy Pelosi as speaker. "I don't support Nancy Pelosi's agenda for this country," said Noem, without specifying what that agenda is. Again, Noem is avoiding specifics and playing for the emotional response to a name and an image.
Ah, but Noem did have a couple specifics: she mentioned Herseth Sandlin's votes for the stimulus package and for extending the federal debt ceiling, both of which Noem said were just bad.
Noem then borrowed the tactic launched by Chris Nelson last December: where Herseth Sandlin votes against Pelosi, attack the procedural votes. Noem said as Assistant Majority Leader in the State House, she knows that if you really oppose a bill, you can show some leadership and convince colleagues to kill it.
Stephanie Herseth Sandlin wasted no time dismantling what few relevant specifics Noem put on the table in her opening comments. She briefly mentioned having "lots of family" at the fair and Zachary probably out looking at four-wheelers, then got to business. She said Noem sounds like she's moving to San Francisco to run against Pelosi herself.
Herseth Sandlin then recited a list of fights she's had against Republicans to protect South Dakota interests. In 2004, she wrestled House Ag Committee Republicans who wanted to weaken Country of Origin Labeling. She cited Bush Administration and Congressional foot-dragging on drought assistance that she fought for until her party took over and made it happen in 2007. She cited her work to put together a good bipartisan 2008 Farm Bill that President Bush vetoed twice. Herseth Sandlin emphasized that GOP House Leader John Boehner voted to sustain that veto twice.
Now notice the difference in tactics: Noem just shouts "Pelosi!" and hopes ad hominem is enough. Herseth Sandlin shouts "Boehner!" but then ties his name to a specific policy.
Herseth Sandlin then turned to note that she has worked with her GOP colleagues in the House, as well as with the Bush Administration, to improve forest management and pass support for renewable fuels. Herseth Sandlin said that South Dakota can't afford to turn over its lone House seat to "a partisan mouthpiece for either party's agenda." The subtext here: Do you think a GOP/Tea Party candidate being feted as a GOP "Young Gun" and given big face time on Fox News will be allowed to buck her party and work with the Obama Administration?
Herseth Sandlin then turned to her msot recent vote, the Medicaid and education funding Congress dished out to help states. Herseth Sandlin pointed out that Governor Rounds requested and accepted that money because South Dakota seniors and students need that money. She said she worked to cut tax loopholes for multinational corporations to pay for that funding. Some Noemsters in the audience jeered when Herseth Sandlin spoke of successfully restoring the requirement that Congress pay for what it spends, but Herseth Sandlin, always listening, was ready to shoot back that Senator Thune supports the same requirement.
Herseth Sandlin said Noem has said she would have voted against that Medicaid and education assistance because closing those tax loopholes will cost businesses money. Herseth Sandlin then drops another hammer: "I will stand with seniors and students in South Dakota over multi-national corporations any day." That line has emotional appeal, but Herseth Sandlin roots the attack in specific policy, on a specific vote, on a specific position mouthed by her opponent. That's good debating.
Herseth Sandlin hit many more specific policy points that define what voters can expect from her in Congress. Herseth Sandlin was also more aggressive and intense than Noem. (And while Republicans may now try to spin aggressive and intensity as agitation and lack of composure, I don't recall the GOP having a problem with agression and intensity during all the town hall shouting they did during the health care debate.) On substance and style in the opening round, advantage Herseth Sandlin.
Dang, and that's just the opening statements! I'll analyze the candidates' responses to questions and their closing statements in subsequent posts. Stay tuned! (Boy, it's a good thing I only have ten minutes to write a typical high school debate ballot, right, kids? :-) )
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